Sohn: Wheeler's FCC Not Slowing Down

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Gigabit Cities Live 2016 -- The Wheeler FCC won't be slowing down in its last ten months, even as the presidential election campaign goes on in the background, a key advisor to Chairman Tom Wheeler said today.

Speaking at Light Reading's Gigabit Cities conference here, Gigi Sohn, counselor to the chairman, said the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has four major priorities left to address. Those include the wireless spectrum incentive auction, making sure the US is prepared to be a 5G leader, closing the digital divide and opening up the cable set-top boxes.

"I think we've had a sense of urgency ever since we walked in the door in 2013, so this isn't a new sense of urgency," Sohn says. "But we are not slowing down."

The auction is in its first phase, as broadcasters decide whether to sell their current TV spectrum back to the FCC. Yet to come is the forward auction where wireless operators then bid on that spectrum. The FCC must still make sure that broadcasters who surrender services "get their spectrum repacked, and they end up in a different place with the same power and hopefully the same audience," Sohn said. And she promised the agency would push competition in the forward auction as well.

The FCC is very focused on making sure the US is positioned to be a global leader in 5G deployment, especially since that will enable the Internet of Things, she added. Federal regulators need to make sure the right policies and the right spectrum is available to enable 5G.

Fireside Chat
Light Reading Senior Editor Mari Silbey (left) and FCC Adviser Gigi Sohn share a moment on stage.
Light Reading Senior Editor Mari Silbey (left) and FCC Adviser Gigi Sohn share a moment on stage.

Greater digital inclusion is also an urgent matter, Sohn said. Last week, the FCC extended its Lifeline program to include broadband service, so those who can't afford the service can get it -- a critical step toward closing the digital divide, she noted. "That is very exciting, but we have a lot of work to do on that as well," she said. "It's one thing to have it, another to have people use it."

The FCC hopes to work with groups that enable digital inclusion. Sohn actually had breakfast in Charlotte with ten such groups prior to her presentation to get the new Lifeline broadband service out into communities where it is needed.

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On the open cable set-top box issue, Sohn admitted it is a controversial subject inside the Beltway, where the cable industry is fighting hard against new rules, given the shift to over-the-top video. But just as millions of Americans rallied behind the FCC to enable it to push through re-regulation of broadband service under Title II in its Open Internet ruling, millions could also support open cable boxes, she claimed, because they are tired of having to lease boxes from their cable provider.

"The FCC must create a market for competitive navigation devices," Sohn commented. "Ninety-nine percent of US [cable subscribers] lease a cable set-top box from their cable operators. We want them to be able to buy those."

Ideally, she added, consumers will be able to have a single device that will allow them to navigate from their OTT service -- she uses Apple TV -- to their pay-TV service on a single device.

Sohn also expressed excitement over the topic of the day -- Gigabit Cities -- and the rapid growth in both public and private buildouts of fiber that are happening across the country. She didn't try to take credit for any of that but did point to the FCC's action to prevent state laws from prohibiting municipalities from investing in their own networks.

— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading

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