All posts in “FCC”

FCC approval of Europe’s Galileo satellite signals may give your phone’s GPS a boost

The FCC’s space-focused meeting today had actions taken on SpaceX satellites and orbital debris reduction, but the decision most likely to affect users has to do with Galileo . No, not the astronomer — the global positioning satellite constellation put in place by the E.U. over the last few years. It’s now legal for U.S. phones to use, and a simple software update could soon give your GPS signal a major bump.

Galileo is one of several successors to the Global Positioning System that’s been in use since the ’90s. But because it is U.S.-managed and was for a long time artificially limited in accuracy to everyone but U.S. military, it should come as no surprise that European, Russian, and Chinese authorities would want their own solutions. Russia’s GLONASS is operational and China is hard at work getting its BeiDou system online.

The E.U.’s answer to GPS was Galileo, and the 26 (out of 30 planned) satellites making up the constellation offer improved accuracy and other services, such as altitude positioning. Test satellites went up as early as 2005, but it wasn’t until 2016 that it began actually offering location services.

A Galileo satellite launch earlier this year.

Devices already existed that would take advantage of Galileo signals — all the way back to the iPhone 6S, the Samsung Galaxy S7, and many others from that era forward. It just depends on the wireless chip inside the phone or navigation unit, and it’s pretty much standard now. (There’s a partial list of smartphones supporting Galileo here.)

When a company sells a new phone, it’s much easier to just make a couple million of the same thing rather than make tiny changes like using a wireless chipset in U.S. models that doesn’t support Galileo. The trade-off in savings versus complexity of manufacturing and distribution just isn’t worthwhile.

The thing is, American phones couldn’t use Galileo because the FCC has regulations against having ground stations being in contact with foreign satellites. Which is exactly what using Galileo positioning is, though of course it’s nothing sinister.

If you’re in the U.S., then, your phone likely has the capability to use Galileo but it has been disabled in software. The FCC decision today lets device makers change that, and the result could be much-improved location services. (One band not very compatible with existing U.S. navigation services has been held back, but two of the three are now available.)

Interestingly enough, however, your phone may already be using Galileo without your or the FCC’s knowledge. Because the capability is behind a software lock, it’s possible that a user could install an app or service bringing it into use. Perhaps you travel to Europe a lot and use a French app store and navigation app designed to work with Galileo and it unlocked the bands. There’d be nothing wrong with that.

Or perhaps you installed a custom ROM that included the ability to check the Galileo signal. That’s technically illegal, but the thing is there’s basically no way for anyone to tell! The way these systems work, all you’d be doing is receiving a signal illegally that your phone already supports and that’s already hitting its antennas every second — so who’s going to report you?

It’s unlikely that phone makers have secretly enabled the Galileo frequencies on U.S. models, but as Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel pointed out in a statement accompanying the FCC action, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening:

If you read the record in this proceeding and others like it, it becomes clear that many devices in the United States are already operating with foreign signals. But nowhere in our record is there a good picture of how many devices in this country are interacting with these foreign satellite systems, what it means for compliance with our rules, and what it means for the security of our systems. We should change that. Technology has gotten ahead of our approval policies and it’s time for a true-up.

She isn’t suggesting a crackdown — this is about regulation lagging behind consumer tech. Still, it is a little worrying that the FCC basically has no idea, and no way to find out, how many devices are illicitly tuning in to Galileo signals.

Expect an update to roll out to your phone sometime soon — Galileo signals will be of serious benefit to any location-based app, and to public services like 911, which are now officially allowed to use the more accurate service to determine location.

White House belatedly begins planning for 5G with memo asking for policy recommendations

The White House has issued a memorandum outlining the need for a new national wireless connectivity strategy; the document doesn’t really establish anything new, but does request lots of reports on how things are going. Strangely, what it proposes sounds a lot like what the FCC already does.

The memorandum, heralded by a separate post announcing that “America Will Win the Global Race to 5G,” is not exactly a statement of policy, though it does put a few things out there. It’s actually more of a request for information on which to base a future policy — apparently one that will win us a global race that began years ago.

In fact, the U.S. has been pursuing a broad 5G policy for quite a while now, and under President Obama we were the first country to allocate spectrum to the nascent standard. But since then progress has stalled and we have been overtaken by the likes of South Korea and Spain in policy steps like spectrum auctions.

After some talk about the “insatiable demand” for wireless spectrum and the economic importance of wireless communications, the memo gets to business. Reports are requested within 180 days from various Executive branch departments and agencies on “their anticipated future spectrum requirements,” as well as reviews of their current spectrum usage.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy is asked to report in the same time period on how emerging tech (smart homes and grids, for instance) could affect spectrum demand, and how research and development spending should be guided to improve spectrum access.

Another report from the Secretary of Commerce will explain “existing efforts and planned near- to mid-term spectrum repurposing initiatives.”

270 days from today the various entities involved here, including the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the FCC, will deliver a “long-term National Spectrum Strategy” that hits a number of targets:

  • Increase spectrum access, security and transparency
  • Create flexible spectrum management models, including standards, incentives, and enforcement mechanisms
  • “Develop advanced technologies” to improve spectrum access and sharing
  • Improve the global competitiveness of U.S. “terrestrial and space-related industries” (which seems to encompass all of them)

It’s not exactly ambitious; the terms are vague enough that one would expect any new legislation or rules to accomplish or accommodate these things. One would hardly want a spectrum policy that decreased access and transparency. In fact, the previous administration issued spectrum memos much like these, years ago.

Meanwhile this fresh start may frustrate those in government who are already doing this work. The FCC has been pursuing 5G and new spectrum policy for years, and it’s been a particular focus of Chairman Ajit Pai. He proposed a bunch of rules months ago, and just yesterday there was a proposal to bring Wi-Fi up to a more compatible and future-proof state. It’s entirely possible that the agency may have to justify and re-propose things it’s already doing, or see those actions and rules questioned or altered by committees over the next year.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel was not enthusiastic about the memo.

“We are ripping up what came before and starting with a new wireless policy sometime late next year. But the world isn’t going to wait for us,” she said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “Other nations are moving ahead with strategies they are implementing now while we’re headed to study hall — and in the interim we’re slapping big tariffs on the most essential elements of 5G networks. If you stand back and survey what is happening, you see that we’re not expediting our 5G wireless leadership, we’re making choices that slow us down.”

Whether this new effort will yield worthwhile results, we’ll know in 270 days. Until then the authorities already attempting to make the U.S. the leader in 5G will continue doing what they’re doing.

Net neutrality rises from the dead, and the Trump administration isn’t happy

It’s official: we can’t call anything that happens in the fight over net neutrality “Official” anymore.

Late Sunday evening, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the state of California to refute its landmark net neutrality legislation. This is just the latest of many tit for tat maneuverings in a years-long battle to legally define internet freedom. 

Net neutrality advocates think that the government should classify the internet as a utility, and therefore Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must treat all content and access to the internet “neutrally.” Opponents say that the internet is an interstate information service, so that ISPs should be able to charge for access and content as they see fit.

But with this latest legal development, there are too many variables to say which viewpoint will ultimately — if ever — come out on top.

Jeff Sessions’ embattled Justice Department sued California on the same day that Gov. Jerry Brown signed the state’s comprehensive bill into law. The JD argues that the internet is a function of interstate commerce, therefore it falls under federal jurisdiction. 

“Under the Constitution, states do not regulate interstate commerce—the federal government does,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. “Once again the California legislature has enacted an extreme and illegal state law attempting to frustrate federal policy.”

The California bill’s original author, State Senator Scott Wiener, issued a statement rebuking the lawsuit.

“Sessions and his boss Donald trump aren’t satisfied with the federal government repealing net neutrality,” Wiener wrote. ” In their world, *no one* is allowed to protect an open internet.”

This legal battle will likely come down to the issue of interstate commerce. If California’s past winning record in battles with the Trump administration to protect its progressive agenda is any indication, the state will put up a good fight. Still, with net neutrality now wending its way through US district courts, we may not know how this will play out for years.

The lawsuit is also only the most recent tactic in an issue that has been fought over for years; Mashable has in the past declared net neutrality both saved, when the Obama administration established net neutrality in 2015 — and “dead,” when Trump’s FCC killed it in 2017. That speaks to how invested the stakeholders are on both sides, because having the final word on whether the internet is a utility or an information service could make internet companies an immense amount of money. Or, it could cost the public its online freedom.

But now it’s clear that what the FCC says might not go. California is not the only state to enact strong net neutrality protections — over thirty states have introduced similar legislation. So this battle could play out again and again. 

There is also a net neutrality bill in Congress, which has the ability too both protect net neutrality, and legislate it at the federal level. Though net neutrality is often a partisan issue, with Republicans against and Democrats for, the Republican-majority Senate passed a bill protecting net neutrality by reversing the FCC ruling in May. Democrats have failed to force a vote of the bill in the House. But that could change if the predicted “blue wave” of the midterms comes to fruition. And, in yet another potential battle, the strength of the wave (or perhaps tsunami) could even override any potential Trump veto.

And then there’s Trump. Trump seems to be basically following his policy of: If Obama was for it, I’m against it. He also somewhat nonsensically tweeted about net neutrality in 2014, conflating the issue with “stifling conservatives,” and arguing that the FCC did not have the authority that it is so righteously claiming now. 

Trump has also proven that he’s not loyal to anyone but himself. So there’s no telling if he’ll stick by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai if it comes down to a bill on his desk.

Net neutrality has been killed, resuscitated, kicked down, and brought back to life now so many times that this issue might not be settled any time soon, especially as our governing bodies mutate with each passing term limit. The one certainty is that in this fight, no one is backing down. And while that seems exhausting, advocates of internet freedom aren’t giving up — and neither should you.

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FCC cracks the whip on 5G deployment against protests of local governments

The FCC is pushing for speedy deployment of 5G networks nationwide with an order adopted today that streamlines what it perceives as a patchwork of obstacles, needless costs, and contradictory regulations at the state level. But local governments say the federal agency is taking things too far.

5G networks will consist of thousands of wireless installations, smaller and more numerous than cell towers. This means that wireless companies can’t use existing facilities, for all of it at least, and will have to apply for access to lots of new buildings, utility poles, and so on. It’s a lot of red tape, which of course impedes deployment.

To address this, the agency this morning voted 3 to 1 along party lines to adopt the order (PDF) entitled “Accelerating Wireline Broadband Deployment by Removing Barriers to Infrastructure Investment.” What it essentially does is exert FCC authority over state wireless regulators and subject them to a set of new rules superseding their own.

First the order aims to literally speed up deployment by standardizing new, shorter “shot clocks” for local governments to respond to applications. They’ll have 90 days for new locations and 60 days for existing ones — consistent with many existing municipal timeframes but now to be enforced as a wider standard. This could be good, as the longer time limits were designed for consideration of larger, more expensive equipment.

On the other hand, some cities argue, it’s just not enough time — especially considering the increased volume they’ll be expected to process.

Cathy Murillo, Mayor of Santa Barbara, writes in a submitted comment:

The proposed ‘shot clocks’ would unfairly and unreasonably reduce the time needed for proper application review in regard to safety, aesthetics, and other considerations. By cutting short the necessary review period, the proposals effectively shift oversight authority from the community and our elected officials to for-profit corporations for wireless equipment installations that can have significant health, safety, and aesthetic impacts when those companies have little, if any, interest to respect these concerns.

Next, and even less popular, is the FCC’s take on fees for applications and right-of-way paperwork. These fees currently vary widely, because as you might guess it is far more complicated and expensive — often by an order of magnitude or more — to approve and process an application for (not to mention install and maintain) an antenna on 5th Avenue in Manhattan than it is in outer Queens. These are, to a certain extent anyway, natural cost differences.

The order limits these fees to “a reasonable approximation of their costs for processing,” which the FCC estimated at about $500 for one application for up to five installations or facilities, $100 for additional facilities, and $270 per facility per year all inclusive.

For some places, to be sure, that may be perfectly reasonable. But as Catherine Pugh, Mayor of Baltimore, put it in a letter to the FCC protesting the proposed rules, it sure isn’t for her city.

An annual fee of $270 per attachment, as established in the above document, is unconscionable when the facility may yeild profits, in some cases, many times that much in a given month. The public has invested and installed these assets [i.e. utility poles and other public infrastructure], not the industry. The industry does not own these assets; the public does. Under these circumstances, it is entirely reasonable that the public should be able to charge what it believes to be a fair price.

There’s no doubt that excessive fees can curtail deployment and it would be praiseworthy of the FCC to tackle that. But the governments they are hemming in don’t seem to appreciate being told what is reasonable and what isn’t.

“It comes down to this: three unelected officials on this dais are telling state and local leaders all across the country what they can and cannot do in their own backyards,” said FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement presented at the vote. “This is extraordinary federal overreach.”

New York City’s commissioner of information technology told Bloomberg that his office is “shocked” by the order, calling it “an unnecessary and unauthorized gift to the telecommunications industry and its lobbyists.”

The new rules may undermine deployment deals that already exist or are under development. After all, if you were a wireless company, would you still commit to paying $2,000 per facility when the feds just gave you a coupon for 80 percent off? And if you were a city looking at a budget shortfall of millions because of this, wouldn’t you look for a way around it?

Chairman Ajit Pai argued in a statement that “When you raise the cost of deploying wireless infrastructure, it is those who live in areas where the investment case is the most marginal—rural areas or lower-income urban areas—who are most at risk of losing out.”

But the basic market economics of this don’t seem to work out. Big cities cost more and are more profitable; rural areas cost less and are less profitable. Under the new rules, big cities and rural areas will cost the same, but the former will be even more profitable. Where would you focus your investments?

The FCC also unwisely attempts to take on the aesthetic considerations of installations. Cities have their own requirements for wireless infrastructure, such as how it’s painted, where it can be located, what size it can be when in this or that location. But the FCC seems (as it does so often these days) to want to accommodate the needs of wireless providers rather than the public.

Wireless companies complain that the rules are overly restrictive or subjective, and differ too greatly from one place to another. Municipalities contend that the restrictions are justified and, at any rate, their prerogative to design and enforce.

“Given these differing perspectives and the significant impact of aesthetic requirements on the ability to deploy infrastructure and provide service, we provide guidance on whether and in what circumstances aesthetic requirements violate the [Communications] Act,” the FCC’s order reads. In other words, wireless industry gripes about having to paint their antennas or not hang giant microwave arrays in parks are being federally codified.

“We conclude that aesthetics requirements are not preempted if they are (1) reasonable, (2) no more burdensome than those applied to other types of infrastructure deployments, and (3) published in advance,” the order continues. Does that sound kind of vague to you? Whether an city’s aesthetic requirement is “reasonable” is hardly the jurisdiction of a communications regulator.

For instance, Hudson, Ohio city manager Jane Howington writes in a comment on the order that the city has 40-foot limits on pole heights, to which the industry has already agreed, but which would be increased to 50 under the revisions proposed in the rule. Why should a federal authority be involved in something so clearly under local jurisdiction and expertise?

This isn’t just an annoyance. As with the net neutrality ruling, legal threats from states can present serious delays and costs.

“Every major state and municipal organization has expressed concern about how Washington is seeking to assert national control over local infrastructure choices and stripping local elected officials and the citizens they represent of a voice in the process,” said Rosenworcel. “I do not believe the law permits Washington to run roughshod over state and local authority like this and I worry the litigation that follows will only slow our 5G future.”

She also points out that the predicted cost savings of $2 billion — by telecoms, not the public — may be theorized to spur further wireless deployment, but there is no requirement for companies to use it for that, and in fact no company has said it will.

In other words, there’s every reason to believe that this order will sow discord among state and federal regulators, letting wireless companies save money and sticking cities with the bill. There’s certainly a need to harmonize regulations and incentivize wireless investment (especially outside city centers), but this doesn’t appear to be the way to go about it.

Verizon accused of lying about rural coverage, stifling 4G LTE expansion

Small rural carriers, who may lose out on funding due to Verizon's misleading claims, are asking the FCC to intervene.
Small rural carriers, who may lose out on funding due to Verizon’s misleading claims, are asking the FCC to intervene.

Image: Getty Images/Westend61

Is Verizon misleading the government on just how much of rural America is covered by its 4G LTE network?

According to a group of rural carriers the answer is yes. And, according to these smaller carriers, Verizon’s deceptive claims are blocking their ability to serve these uncovered rural areas.

The Rural Wireless Association (RWA), a trade group, has sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission requesting an official investigation into whether Verizon’s LTE network covers as much of rural America as the telecommunications giant says it does. 

Last year, the FCC required mobile carriers like Verizon to submit reports to the Commission regarding the extent of their current 4G LTE areas of coverage. The FCC would use the data submitted to help determine where exactly it would need to distribute Mobility Fund money — funds specifically marked for areas (mostly rural ones) that lack 4G LTE coverage. Over the next decade, the FCC plans to distributed up to $4.53 billion via the Mobility Fund.

In its request, the RWA accuses Verizon of providing the FCC with a “sham coverage map”:

Verizon should not be allowed to abuse the FCC challenge process by filing a sham coverage map as a means of interfering with the ability of rural carriers to continue to receive universal service support in rural areas.

An engineering firm hired by Panhandle Telephone Cooperative, Inc. tested Verizon’s 4G LTE coverage claims in the Oklahoma Panhandle, an area Verizon’s map contends to almost completely cover. According to the RWA, the researchers discovered that the coverage area in the Oklahoma Panhandle turned out to be “not even half of the LTE coverage area Verizon publicly claims to serve.”

In its letter to the FCC, the RWA states that the one such test to verify Verizon’s coverage claims, like the one conducted in the Oklahoma Panhandle for example, costs “close to $1 million.” Such costs can be prohibitive for smaller carriers, so the RWA is asking the FCC to take over and launch an investigation.

The FCC has not yet responded to the complaint. Verizon, however, has disputed the claims in an FCC filing of its own.

In a statement provided to Mashable, a Verizon spokesperson says that while “no model is perfect” when it comes to coverage mapping, “the Mobility Fund coverage map that Verizon filed in January follows the FCC’s mapping rules and industry best practices for modeling.” The statement refers to the millions of dollars Verizon has spent over the past five years on its “sophisticated model.” In addition, Verizon says the RWA should file a formal challenge to the model if it disputes the map.

Verizon has a mixed history when it comes to servicing rural customers. Just last year, the company kicked 8,500 rural customers off its network for using too much roaming data — data that goes through many of those same local rural carriers who partner with Verizon for service outside the company’s coverage zones.

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