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Slowed Pending Application Worries

FCC OKs NPRMs on Satellite/Smartphone Framework, Changes to Inmate Calling Rules

FCC commissioners unanimously approved a supplemental coverage from space (SCS) NPRM at their March open meeting Thursday, but Republican commissioners sounded alarms about the proceeding potentially slowing agency processing of pending applications regarding satellite connectivity to smartphones. The NPRM's approval was expected (see 2303090047). Also getting 4-0 OK was an inmate calling services (ICS) NPRM on implementing the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act and a Further NPRM on expanding the number of broadcast TV markets required to provide audio description (see 2303100043). The approved items weren't released.

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Commissioners repeatedly cited maintaining U.S. space leadership in their approval. The convergence of space with terrestrial mobile service was a hot topic at this year's Mobile World Congress, Commissioner Brendan Carr said. But he said "we need to keep walking and chewing gum at the same time" by a broader modernization of the agency's satellite regulatory framework that speeds up the pace of satellite application processing. Commissioner Nathan Simington said the proceeding shouldn't impede the agency's approving waiver applications of providers already seeking permission to launch direct-to-handset services. "The FCC must ensure those waiver applications move forward at a rapid clip to avoid thwarting business plans and future innovation," he said.

The SCS NPRM proposes a model where satcom operators partner with terrestrial service operators and get mission authorization for operating satellites on flexible-use spectrum allocated terrestrially in a specific set of bands.

"We in no way propose to shut the doors" on systems outside the proposed framework criteria, Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said. He said there's SCS interest from wireless carriers lacking nationwide spectrum and from satellite operators that don't have commercial licenses covering the full scale of their systems, plus concerns raised by smaller and regional carriers. "We shouldn’t stall innovation as parties work to meet the policy considerations we lay out today," Starks said.

Also changed from the draft was language opening the door to SCS service on FirstNet spectrum, the FCC said.

"We are going to lead," Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said. The starting proposal focuses on nationwide service, but "we're not going to limit our efforts" to that scenario, she said. The agency is looking for ways to allow regional coverage while protecting spectrum rights and preventing interference, she said.

The ICS item proposes to expand the definition of payphone services, clarifies the commission's jurisdiction to include intrastate rates, and requires the FCC to consider the costs of safety and security measures. The item also reaffirms the Wireline Bureau and Office of Economics and Analytics Bureau's data collection authority, directing staff to update and restructure the existing data collection based on the new law. Wireline Bureau Chief Trent Harkrader told reporters "small tweaks" were made to the final item based on feedback from stakeholders.

The ICS marketplace "has long been broken" and the agency was "unable to alter the status quo despite broad consensus on the types of reforms that are necessary," Carr said. "I'm hopeful that we will do a top-to-bottom review of the costs borne today by the families of incarcerated individuals," he said. The FCC "can now work towards ensuring that rates charged are just and reasonable, consistent with the commission’s standard in Section 202," said Starks: "Ensuring that rates for advanced communications services offered to incarcerated individuals are just is also long overdue to support incarcerated populations that are deaf and hard of hearing or face other communications disabilities." The Wright-Reed Act "demands we produce results between 18 and 24 months after enactment and too many have waited too long for us to address these usurious rates," said Rosenworcel. The FCC is "going to move fast."

Incarcerated people "should be able to connect and communicate without being subject to extortionate rates," said Free Press Internet Campaign Director Heather Franklin. The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society also praised the FCC move. "We are pleased that the FCC is moving so quickly" to implement the Wright-Reed Act, said Executive Director Adrianne Furniss: "Incarcerated people and their loved ones have waited far too long to obtain the right to stay in touch and to help keep their families intact."

The audio description item will seek comment on requiring audio description in all 210 U.S. broadcast markets. Current FCC rules require audio description in the top 100 designated market areas by January, and the FNRPM seeks comment on expanding to 10 new markets each year from 2025 until 2035. The proposal would maximize the amount of audio description the FCC can require under the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act. “We want to deliver to everyone, everywhere on the promise” of this law -- so let’s get to it,” said Rosenworcel.