I was recently in Cooperstown, N.Y., playing baseball on the Abner Doubleday Field. While I was there, I was out of range of my cell provider (although some of my teammates did have coverage from their providers), and I did not have reception for my Blackberry, either. There are no local AOL dial-up numbers, and at my hotel — the only chain hotel in and around the town — there was no broadband access. And I didn’t detect any hot spots with my computer’s WiFi card.
To some people, this sounds like a problem. But hopefully to you, it sounds like an opportunity. Cooperstown, despite its size, hosts an incredible number of tourists every year. The week that we were there, there was a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, and the town was swarming with the players, their families and their fans. It would seem that Cooperstown, and similar areas, may present excellent opportunities for entrepreneurial folks.
To promote that effort, the FCC has embarked on a number of initiatives designed to speed broadband access to rural areas. First, the FCC has adopted a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (not yet released at this writing) to review what rule changes might be needed to aid the effort. The NPRM is intended to create rules to “promote continued rapid and efficient deployment of quality spectrum-based services in rural America,” and it is based upon the finding of the Spectrum Policy Task Force and an earlier Notice Of Inquiry.
The NPRM poses a series of questions, including whether the cellular cross-ownership rules should be relaxed, and a further review of the rules for spectrum leasing, construction requirements. The scope of the NPRM is far-reaching, and any entity involved in telecommunications in non-urban areas ought to be keenly aware of the details of the NPRM’s proposals, and provide substantive comments to the Commission, particularly with regard to the impact on non-urban small businesses.
The FCC also has begun what it calls the “Land Of Opportunity” initiative. The FCC has identified three regions of the country — Tribal Lands, Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta — for a 16-month effort to inform consumers about the Federal Policies, Rules and Programs to improve access to telecommunications services. The educational program includes the Universal Service and “Link Up” programs. For those not familiar with it, the Link Up program provides discounts for low-income consumer telephone installation. Locally, the FCC had planned a full-day workshop for rural ISPs at the Commission’s Offices. Unfortunately, Hurricane Isabel had a different idea.
The proceeding that could have a huge impact on rural broadband service is the Commission’s massive Unbundled Network Elements (UNE) Order, which affects how competitive carriers and ISPs are able to access elements of the telephone number. Although the Order has been appealed by disgruntled parties on all sides, every carrier and ISP should review at least a summary of the 500-plus page document. In addition, don’t ignore the FCC’s recent launch of a review of the TELRIC Rules. These two items will govern the relationships between carriers for many years.
The FCC also is looking at easing the technical rules for unlicensed devices. This proceeding is designed to permit operators (including WISPs) and device manufacturers to more readily modify or substitute technically equivalent parts. Thus, the Commission will be looking at relaxing the regulatory constraints on system design and equipment authorizations for unlicensed devices. One proposal includes permitting sectorized and phased array antenna systems.
An exciting and controversial development is the Commission’s review of Broadband Over Power Line (BPL) systems. On the plus side, utilities might have the potential to bring broadband access to areas where cable broadband is not available. Many of these utilities are not necessarily interested in providing content or being the retail arm of the venture, but are instead looking to local ISPs and radio dealers to provide these functions. On the minus side, the amateur community believes that BPL systems will cause significant radio interference. Even if interference problems can be resolved, in some states there are regulatory hurdles that municipal utilities will need to navigate in order to provide the service.
Finally, the Commission is looking at rural aspects of the Digital Television roll-out, and examining the role of television translators and low power stations in bringing DTV to the public. Hopefully this review will include reviewing means by which 700 MHz spectrum can be cleared more quickly.
Through these proceedings, the FCC is attempting to bridge the digital divide in non-urban areas. Hopefully, that effort will proceed a little more smoothly than the “Do Not Call” list.
My concern, however, is that this effort not result in the creation of rules that stifle the competitive possibilities for independent ISPs, WISPs and radio dealers. The FCC must recognize that telecommunications innovations in rural areas have primarily been through the efforts of independent entrepreneurs, because rural areas have been largely ignored by the big guys. These entrepreneurs should be given the tools to expand their efforts and be able to fairly compete.
Alan S. Tilles is counsel to numerous entities in the private radio, Internet and entertainment industries. He is a partner in the law firm of Shulman Rogers Gandal Pordy & Ecker and can be reached at [email protected].