Archive for October, 2016

Improving Wireless Coverage in Rural America

Thursday, October 27th, 2016

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of visiting Tucker County, West Virginia. This area is home to beautiful countryside and a tightly knit community where people work hard and look out for one another. One thing Tucker County does not have is good wireless coverage.

My host, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, organized a roundtable discussion at the Tip Top coffee shop, where local residents shared concerns about how spotty service undermined public safety since residents can’t reliably reach 911 during an emergency. Others spoke of how wireless “dead spots” were hurting the local economy, not only by hampering business operations, but also by deterring tourists who don’t want to be completely off-the-grid. I personally had trouble finding a signal throughout my trip, so it was clear where they were coming from.

At our November monthly meeting, the Commission will consider a series of items that could improve wireless coverage in Tucker County and similar areas across the country.

This starts with a proposal to move forward with Phase II of the Mobility Fund. As part of the Commission’s landmark reforms to the Universal Service Fund in 2011, we created the Mobility Fund to spur deployment of advanced wireless infrastructure. The first phase of the Mobility Fund and Tribal Mobility Fund made available $350 million to build out mobile networks in rural America. 

A top priority of Phase II is making sure investments are better targeted to expand and preserve 4G LTE coverage in areas where it would be unavailable absent universal service support, especially in rural areas. We recently took an important step toward that goal when we released the most detailed analysis ever of wireless coverage in rural areas as a roadmap to how to best allocate funds to the areas of greatest need.

This analysis found that significant LTE coverage gaps still exist throughout America. Excluding Alaska, 11 percent of the nation’s road miles have no 4G LTE coverage at all, including no subsidized coverage. We now know that 16 percent of all square miles have no LTE coverage or only subsidized coverage. And 1.4 million Americans currently have no access to LTE coverage at all, and 1.7 million live in areas where the only LTE coverage relies on a subsidy.

I am circulating proposed rules for Phase II of the Mobility Fund, which would leverage this new coverage data, allow for the targeted use of additional data to validate eligibility decisions, and use a competitive “reverse auction” bidding process to allocate more than $470 million in annual support to preserve and extend 4G LTE coverage. The proposal also sets minimum network performance and service requirements to make sure rural residents aren’t stuck with second-rate service.  And in recognition of the distinct challenges in bringing connectivity to Tribal lands, the proposal would allocate a portion of the overall support specifically for qualifying Tribal lands and offer bidding credits for Tribally-owned and controlled providers.      

Another effective tool to help enhance consumer choice for wireless service in rural areas is “roaming.” To compete in the mobile marketplace, carriers must be able to offer nationwide coverage. Roaming agreements have made it possible for smaller providers – particularly in rural areas – to do business.

The Commission currently has two roaming frameworks; a “just and reasonable” standard for voice roaming and a “commercially reasonable” standard for data roaming.  In the 2015 Open Internet Order, the Commission committed to revisiting data roaming obligations of mobile providers. To honor that commitment, I am proposing a unified “just and reasonable” roaming standard for both voice and data.

Furthermore, carriers are increasingly providing voice service using Voice-over-LTE (VoLTE), an evolution of voice service that involves transmitting voice calls using streams of data. This proposal would also classify VoLTE under the “just and reasonable” standard as with other voice calls. Our   aim is to provide consumers with seamless access to service in all areas of the country, regardless of provider and regardless of how a particular voice call is delivered.

If there is going to be universal wireless coverage, there needs to be fair access to backhaul. In many areas, competition in the supply of backhaul remains limited, and that can translate into higher costs for wireless networks, higher prices for consumers, and an adverse impact on competition.

At our November meeting, the Commission will vote on my proposal to encourage innovation and investment in Business Data Services, which are used for wireless backhaul, while ensuring that lack of competition in some places cannot be used to hold back wireless coverage.

Rounding out our November meeting will be an Order to increase the availability of video-described programming and to make it easier to access. Whether its people with disabilities or the residents of our most isolated rural communities, the FCC is committed to making sure all Americans have access to modern communications. With these actions, we will once again advance the cause of universal access.

FCC Furthers Consumer Engagement Efforts with Consumer Help Center Enhancements

Tuesday, October 25th, 2016

A core component of the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau’s mission is to empower consumers in the telecommunications marketplace. True empowerment requires that consumers be active participants in the Commission’s processes.  That is why, in January 2015, the FCC launched the Consumer Help Center. Through the Help Center, the FCC not only modernized and revitalized the consumer complaint intake process, these improvements also introduced new resources for educating consumers and sharing complaint data.  Since the Help Center’s launch, we have made concerted efforts to continue to improve the quality of visitors’ experience, increase transparency around the complaint data we collect, and develop new ways to engage consumers.

Today, we are proud to announce our latest enhancements to the Consumer Help Center.  We have added a “Tell Your Story” feature that gives consumers a new way to share with us their concerns and observations about a provider, a policy, or an issue affecting them or their communities generally. The redesigned Help Center webpage also provides easier access to all of the FCC’s consumer guides as well as the latest updates to consumer-related information on FCC.gov. 

When you “Tell Your Story,” your comments will not be formally served on your provider as is our practice with complaints about service and billing.  Instead, they will be used by Commission staff to inform policy making and identify practices that may be ripe for potential enforcement action.  This differentiation will better allow the agency to focus its complaint resolution resources on those types of issues while maintaining and enhancing consumers’ ability to give voice to other concerns and thoughts.

Whether you are confused, frustrated, or feel you’ve been harmed, we want to hear from you. With the insights we gain, we can identify trends and ensure that we remain aware of the issues and concerns that matter most to consumers across the country. We will continue to take your consumer complaints and serve them on your provider.  The complaint data we collect – dating back to the Help Center’s debut nearly two years ago – is shared publicly in the Consumer Complaint Data Center.  This new functionality will also help add another layer of granularity to our data by differentiating between what might be called complaints vs. comments.  As promised, we continue to make forward progress in our efforts to be as user-friendly, accessible, and transparent to consumers as possible. 

We are committed to the rights of consumers. Empowering consumers to share their stories with the Commission better enables us to fulfill that commitment: to protect and inform you, the individual consumer. We also remain committed to providing you with excellent service and will continue to monitor and streamline our processes to meet your needs.

We welcome your feedback and comments about the updated Consumer Help Center. Please email us at webfeedback@fcc.gov.

Protecting Privacy for Broadband Consumers

Thursday, October 6th, 2016

The Internet is an indispensable part of our daily lives. At home, at work and on the go, we are constantly tethered to an Internet connection to shop, check email, read news and post on social media websites.

Seldom do we stop to realize that our Internet Service Provider – or ISP – is collecting information about us every time we go online. Your ISP handles all of your network traffic. That means it has a broad view of all of your unencrypted online activity – when you are online, the websites you visit, and the apps you use. If you have a mobile device, your provider can track your physical location throughout the day in real time. Even when data is encrypted, your broadband provider can piece together significant amounts of information about you – including private information such as a chronic medical condition or financial problems – based on your online activity.

The problem is, there are currently no rules in place outlining how ISPs may use and share their customers’ personal information. In fact, 91 percent of American adults say consumers have lost control over how their personal information is collected and used by companies, according to Pew Research Center. In today’s digital world, consumers deserve to be able to make informed choices about their privacy and their children’s privacy online. After all, it’s your data—shouldn’t you have a say over how it’s used?

The Federal Trade Commission uses its enforcement authority to make sure Internet companies like Google and Facebook respect consumers’ privacy, and the Federal Communications Commission is charged with protecting privacy for the customers of telecommunications carriers.  For decades the FCC has required telephone companies to protect the information associated with a phone call. FCC regulations limit how your phone company can repurpose and resell what it learns about your phone activity without your consent. Similar rules don’t exist for broadband service today. That’s a gap that must be closed – consumers who use the network of the 21st century deserve similar protections.

Earlier this year, the FCC launched a proceeding aiming to extend similar privacy protections to the information collected by your broadband provider. Our goal throughout the process has been straightforward: to give consumers the tools they need to make informed decisions about how ISPs use and share their data, and the confidence that ISPs are taking steps to keep that data secure, all while providing ISPs the flexibility they need to continue to innovate.

Over the past six months, we’ve engaged with consumer and public interest groups, fixed and mobile ISPs, advertisers, app and software developers, academics, other government actors including the FTC, and individual consumers to figure out the best approach. Based on the extensive feedback we’ve received, I am proposing new rules to provide consumers increased choice, transparency and security online. I have shared this proposal with my colleagues and the full Commission will consider these proposed privacy rules at our upcoming monthly meeting on October 27.

Under the proposed rules, an ISP would be required to notify consumers about what types of information they are collecting, specify how and for what purposes that information can be used and shared, and identify the types of entities with which the ISP shares the information.

In addition, ISPs would be required to obtain affirmative “opt-in” consent before using or sharing sensitive information. Information that would be considered “sensitive” includes geo-location information, children’s information, health information, financial information, social security numbers, web browsing history, app usage history, and the content of communications such as the text of emails. All other individually identifiable information would be considered non-sensitive, and the use and sharing of that information would be subject to opt-out consent.

Calibrating consent requirements to the sensitivity of the information aligns with consumer expectations and is in harmony with other key privacy frameworks and principles – including those outlined by the FTC and the Administration’s Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights. The proposed rules are designed to evolve with changing technologies, and would provide consumers with ways to easily adjust their privacy preferences over time.  

The proposed rules also require ISPs to take reasonable measures to protect consumer data from breaches and other vulnerabilities. If a breach does occur, the rules would require ISPs to take appropriate steps to notify consumers that their data have been compromised.

To be clear, this proposal focuses on information collected from consumers when they use broadband services, such as residential or mobile connections. It would not apply to the privacy practices of websites or apps, over which the Federal Trade Commission has authority. And that is true even when a website or app is owned by a broadband provider. It’s also important to note that the proposed rules would not prohibit ISPs from using or sharing their customers’ information – they would simply require ISPs to put their customers in the driver’s seat when it comes to those decisions.

The bottom line is that the information you share with your broadband provider is yours. With the FCC’s new privacy protections, you will have the right to determine how it’s used.

Set Top Box Endgame

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016

Last Thursday’s FCC Open Meeting presented an interesting turn of events for the Commission’s set top box proceeding. After whiffing completely on the NPRM’s convoluted “three flows” approach, Commission leadership recanted its opposition to an applications-based approach – one that I had been advocating for months – and centered its attention on it.  An apps-based approach also was at the core of what the related industry filed as a compromise plan to achieve resolution of this proceeding.  Unfortunately, the leadership did not accept yes for an answer and tried to add a multitude of unworkable provisions to a reasonable plan.  In doing so, they found a way to make all interested parties essentially hate the proposal, resulting in a last minute scramble.  In a rare move, the Chairman pulled the item off the meeting agenda at the last minute, stating that Commissioners had run out of time to negotiate final technical changes to the document.

In reality, it was not just a lack of time that led to a stall in the item.  This proceeding is still plagued by major unresolved issues. Since deliberations presumably will continue in coming weeks, it seems appropriate and necessary to outline the problem areas I see preventing a conclusion:

  • FCC Control of the Model License and API: Some have proposed replacing provisions in earlier versions that provided explicit FCC review and approval roles with active FCC monitoring and threats of future action if progress is deemed unsatisfactory.  For practical purposes they are the same thing.  Preserving any role for the Commission is highly objectionable, especially to the content and MVPD communities, because it could potentially alter private commercial agreements without full knowledge or understanding of the entire negotiation and tradeoffs made.  Think of it like pulling a loose string from a sweater.  Beyond the Commission having no authority or expertise in this area, such interference could undo important protections enacted in those commercial agreements.       
  • The Myth of Universal Search: One of the benefits of the item touted by proponents is that it will enable a competitive market in so-called “universal” or “integrated” search apps.  Specifically, MVPDs would be forced to provide entitlement data and other metadata to third parties via a mandated application program interface, or API, supposedly enabling a consumer to search all content available in one interface that could compete with the interface of a set top box.  This mandate would allow an MVPD’s over-the-top competitor access to all the proprietary information needed to undercut the MVPD’s content pricing to consumers, a truly disastrous outcome.  Moreover, since the Commission mandates the metadata flow only from MVPDs, not from over the top providers, the promise of universal search will be unfulfilled.  Under this scenario, MVPDs’ search engines and content pricing will be inherently disadvantaged compared to their competitors’.  To the extent universal search proves important to some consumers, why would the Commission discriminate in favor of third party app providers?
  • Questionable Feasibility: A key component of this item is a requirement that every MVPD with over 400,000 subscribers develop and support a native app for every widely deployed operating system.  No one even knows how many apps this would be right now.  Is it 10?  20?  Apple alone has three distinct operating systems (OSX, iOS, and tvOS) that probably fall under the definition of a widely deployed platform.  And each of these native apps has to be able to provide the exact same functionality as the most advanced set top box the MVPD offers.  A miraculous engineering feat to be sure if it even proves possible, but assuming it does – the cost could be substantial.  The only way to transform this mandate into anything resembling a manageable, realistic task would be to provide a safe harbor for particular widely adopted and available consumer apps so that MVPDs can better manage their scarce software development and support resources.
  • Opening the Door to the App Tax: Today, many of the widely deployed platforms usually receive an upfront fee or cut of revenues from software developers to have their apps made available on these very popular platforms.  The Commission’s set top box item mandates distribution of apps by MVPDs even to app platforms that require some form of this revenue sharing.  This means either FCC-sanctioned cuts to content producers or distributors’ bottom line and more profits for app stores, or FCC-mandated development of yet another type of app with less capability.  Clearly, MVPDs should not be required to develop either full-featured or consumption-only apps for platforms demanding revenue sharing of any kind.  Opening the door to this behavior will further distort the video marketplace, making content more expensive or even unavailable to consumers.  This needs be addressed upfront, not punted to a later date.
  • Competition from Pirated Content: Programmers and MVPDs have registered valid concerns that the third party integrated search engines contemplated by the item would result in pirated content being displayed in search results alongside legitimate MVPD content.  When faced with an onscreen choice to pay $1.99 for an episode of their favorite show from the MVPD app, or click on a pirated version, some will do the right thing, but others will make the choice that little by little, will further degrade the video marketplace.  MVPDs should not be required to provide their apps to any third party that includes pirated content in its search results.  This is another issue that should be spelled out now if the item is to move forward.

This proceeding has had more than its fair share of twists and turns, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that it has ended up in this unenviable spot.  In many ways it has served as another perfect case in point for why the Commission should make every open meeting item available to the public, an initiative I have led the charge on.  Clearly, it’s the only possible way to break the cycle of misunderstandings, spin, and shell games that characterize the current broken process.   

Substantively, the only way to fix the item is to address the key problems and flaws identified above.  Only by doing so would a true app-centric approach be workable for most of the affected companies.  More importantly, it’s the only way to get a resolution that would benefit consumers by eliminating the set top box altogether for those interested.  And isn’t that what the Commission should be focused on?