For results, trim down Pai's broadband plan to an FCC punch list

15 September 2016 by Steve Blum
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Use the home field advantage.

Earlier this week, FCC commissioner Ajit Pai offered a long checklist of actions he’d like to take to improve Internet access and promote economic development, in rural and inner city communities in particular. Those items fall into two categories: things he wants congress to do – good luck with that – and things the Federal Communications Commission can do on its own authority.

Pai is proposing gigabit opportunity zones – low income areas where service providers would get federal tax breaks to improve broadband service and entrepreneurs would likewise benefit if they located there. Great idea, but it’s something he’ll have take up with the next congress and president. He also wants government, at all levels, to back away from imposing “old rules on new industries”, including “from ride- sharing to room-sharing companies, automobile entrants to genetic testing startups”. The FCC has some authority to preempt state and local laws that intrude onto its telecoms regulatory turf, but he’s talking about something much broader.

There are several things on his list that the FCC can address, and that he might be able to find sufficient, bipartisan support among his colleagues to put into effect. Those include further preemption of local and state restrictions on wireless sites and other broadband infrastructure projects and greater federal regulation of pole attachment rules. It was pretty obvious at the CTIA conference last week that there’s a consensus among commissioners that the FCC should be more aggressively kicking down deployment hurdles that state and local governments erect.

Another idea that the FCC can implement on its initiative is to enforce stricter buildout requirements on mobile operators, so that spectrum assigned to less profitable areas – rural communities, in particular – doesn’t sit idle. That needs to change, Pai told a Cincinnati audience

Broadband PCS licenses, for example, had an initial license term of 10 years. Licensees were only required to provide service to 66% of the population. Similarly, some 700 MHz licenses only require providers to serve 75% of consumers by the end of their initial 10-year license term. After those initial license terms expire, the FCC generally allows wireless providers to retain their spectrum without any additional deployment required.

That’s a problem for rural Americans who typically live in higher-cost areas. A wireless carrier may never build out to those areas if it’s never required to do so, even though its exclusive license prevents anyone else from building out to that same area with that same spectrum.

As a grand vision, Pai’s checklist is a fine thing. But to turn at least some of it into reality, he should get to work on the things he and his fellow commissioners can actually do.