3 Ways That FCC Policy is Adjusting to the Digital Era
Love them or loathe them, the FCC serves an important purpose in the communications and tech industries: they are, aspirationally, a regulatory champion for the consumer.
In recent high profile cases, the organization has taken center stage in the national dialogue on subjects ranging from auto-dialing to Net Neutrality. In each case, the goal of the FCC has been to balance the promotion of emerging technologies with consumer protections.
But the digital landscape has advanced rapidly in the last two decades, leaving this important organization struggling to keep pace with technology. A recent drive to modernize is intended to change all that.
How Has FCC Policy Been Updated for the Digital Age?
In the digital era, the FCC has been forced to focus more and more on new technologies that have the potential to disrupt the communications industry, as well as update existing regulations to protect consumers. The adjustment has not always been easy.
Nonetheless, a renewed commitment to keep pace prevails and the following are three examples of how FCC policy is adjusting to the digital era:
The All-IP Transition
The Internet has changed a great number of things. Chiefly, it has made communication far easier, cheaper, and faster than ever before. Applications such as Skype and WhatsApp have made massive inroads within the communications industry and are commonly used by businesses and individuals alike.
As early as 2012, the FCC saw the potential of these technologies to upend the communications industry. As a means to preserve the competitiveness of traditional telecoms, they ordered what is known as the All-IP Transition.
What is the All-IP Transition?
To preserve competition in the telecommunications industry, the FCC proposed policies to accelerate what they saw as an inevitable transition of telecoms from copper-in-the-ground networks to internet protocol (IP) networks. This would effectively retire legacy networks, such as copper-based landline connections, and move all communications services to the internet.
The proposal met with strong resistance from legacy telecom providers. Their argument against the proposal was that shifting all services to the internet in such a short time would be a financial burden. Following a period of research, the FCC granted exemptions to certain companies, particularly those in rural areas, from the originally proposed timeline of three years. However, the transition is in effect, and should be completed by the early 2020’s.
You can read more about the All-IP Transition here.
Local Number Portability
Cell phones changed the game in regards to local number portability. Where as local numbers had previously been exclusively geographically-based, cell phones created a need for portability that would allow consumers to take their cell phone numbers with them in the event of a move or travel.
While most people might assume that this mobile-friendly change, known as Wireless Local Number Portability (WLNP), also affected landlines, it did not. Landline-based local numbers continued to be geographically-based.
This lack of change in regards to landlines became a problem as more and more of the nation’s communications migrated to IP networks. Because local numbers were geographically-based, the only companies with ready access to new phone numbers and porting capabilities were traditional phone companies. This put VoIP providers (what is VoIP?) at a disadvantage because they relied on traditional phone companies to provide new numbers and to port numbers from one location to another.
It took ten years and a great deal of push from the industry to solve this problem. In 2015, the FCC adopted Report and Order 15-79, which allows VoIP providers direct access to new phone numbers and porting. This was a major step toward improving VoIP providers’ competitiveness with traditional phone companies, and for giving consumers more choice in local phone companies.
Allowing VoIP providers direct numbering access was also a major improvement for businesses looking to acquire local vanity phone numbers (such as 541-FITNESS). The ability to port these numbers between carriers used to be near-impossible, but now can be moved from one carrier to another with ease. This has opened up new opportunities for local businesses who once relied on their local phone company to provide such numbers, which often were unavailable.
Fighting Tech Intended for Spam
New technology, while intended to be used for good, is often misused as well. The FCC has long sought to prevent new technologies from negatively affecting consumers. One of the most prominent and persistent problems has been robo-dialing. Robo-dialing is the practice of using a software application to automatically dial phone numbers and, when someone answers, to play a pre-recorded message to entice the consumer to buy something. Following an influx of FCC complaints, the commission took action to ban the use of robo-dialers (also know as auto-dialers) in most cases.
Cases such as these are never black and white. After passing rules banning the use of robo-dialers, many large and reputable companies realized that the definition of robo-dialing put in place by the FCC was so broad that it made many normal telemarketing practices illegal. Hence, the industry pushed back to have the definition of robo-dialing rewritten.
To this day, the issue continues to resurface regularly as consumers and the private industry petition the FCC to refine the rules. It is but one example of many of the issues brought about by new technology that are forcing the FCC to carefully consider the policies it recommends and implements in the digital era.
Other Ways That FCC Policy is Adjusting to the Digital Era
Investment in broadband infrastructure
A congressional bill recently introduced takes into account the FCC’s recommendation for $40B in federal investment in broadband infrastructure to bring broadband access to 98% of Americans. It is part of the FCC’s ongoing effort to ensure the nation’s communications infrastructure remains adequate to give all consumers equal access to the internet.
Project Loon is a network of balloons that provides connectivity to users on the ground. Now that the experimental license has been approved, it will attempt to initiate service in Puerto Rico. Project Loon obtained consent agreements to use land mobile radio (LMR) radio spectrum in the 900 MHz band from existing carriers operating within Puerto Rico.
The project is experimental and speaks to the FCC’s desire to implement policies that ensure new technologies are leveraged to serve consumers. This includes emergency and disaster scenarios. This most recent proposal, to allow the experimental Project Loon to move forward, could yield tremendous benefits for those in a disaster situation in the future.
3.5 GHZ Band rollout
The FCC has proposed a new round of investment in the 3.5 GHZ Band, as well as an easement of certain rules to utilize it. The 3.5 GHZ Band is considered to be extremely important for the next generation of wireless networks because it is this band that wireless networks will utilize to support 5G. The rules are also important to create incentives for investment by wireless carriers so that the U.S.’s utilization of the 3.5 GHZ Band keeps pace with other countries.
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