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Bye, Pai: What to Expect from the New FCC

by Steve Crosby, Senior Advisor

With a new administration coming, changes are already afoot at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Chairman Ajit Pai has announced he will depart on January 20, 2021, and current Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel is rumored to be next in line to chair the organization. The power shift will likely result in a more consumer-focused FCC, with an emphasis on bringing high-speed internet to rural and underserved parts of the U.S.

Taking a step back, we can predict several of the incoming priorities for the FCC as the organization gains a Democratic working majority.

Broadband access is key. It is universally important to the public, regardless of age, socio-economic background, or geography. From remote rural towns to the suburbs to metropolitan areas, high-speed access is critical. The COVID-19 crisis has only further driven this point home, as the majority of residents now rely on the internet for work, school, and day-to-day connection with friends and family. We’ve seen the meteoric rise of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Facetime, WebEx, and other platforms. We’ve seen everything from gym classes to academic conferences move online. For our society and economy to stay afloat, online access is everything.

Look for leading consumer groups and digital rights advocates to push for a return to those net neutrality rules.

The FCC will push internet carriers—those who build and expand broadband access as well as those who deliver broadband—to increase speeds to consumers and to reach all parts of the country. The FCC will also continue to offer financial incentives to those who expand broadband access. Individual states will also do their part, as shown through the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which offers internet carriers the option to apply for funding from one or more of their five California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) accounts. Each account serves a particular purpose and goal within the state.

With the continued deployment of 5G technology, we can expect to see more functionality that benefits residents of smart cities. This includes better traffic management, reduced latency, and more autonomous vehicles taking full advantage of the technology. And it doesn’t end there: the technology could also help allocate electricity dynamically across a power grid to where it’s needed, rather than simply generating more when demand peaks, empower independent living for elderly or disabled residents by monitoring vital signs, and so on.

We’ll see the FCC make more spectrum available through auctions and reallocations to continue the expansion of 5G. They’ll look to lower barriers that would stop or slow small-cell growth in cities and other highly-trafficked areas—though the new FCC might be kinder to local municipalities concerned with environmental or aesthetic issues regarding cell sites, various types of antennae, and small cells.

One of the more high-profile shifts will be the tussle over net neutrality. The FCC is likely to focus on reconstituting some of the elements of the old net neutrality rules crafted under former FCC Chairman Wheeler and slowly dismantled by FCC Chairman Pai. Look for leading consumer groups and digital rights advocates to push for a return to those net neutrality rules the minute Pai is out the door.

Finally, we can anticipate the normal flow of mergers and acquisitions in the coming year, which will offer us a view into the FCC’s lens on how to handle these, all with an eye on being more consumer-friendly. Like most bureaucracies during new administrations, there will be a few drastic changes, but the core work will be as regular as ever.

With over 30 years of experience in communications, Steve Crosby was most recently Senior Vice President of Frontier Communications Corporation, responsible for the legislative and regulatory affairs for half of the country under Frontier. Prior to that, he managed the corporate communications department of Seattle-based Vulcan Inc. He also previously worked at AT&T Wireless (AWS) and its predecessor, the Los Angeles Cellular Telephone Company (LACTC), in the Southern California regional office, in charge of both public relations as well as government affairs aspects for AWS.


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