FCC planning chief taps telecom execs for broadband, relay expertise

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ORLANDO, Fla.--Jonathan Chambers, chief of the FCC's office of strategic planning and policy, didn't come to the Genband Perspectives 14 conference to make waves. Rather, he kicked off his keynote speech with a walk down memory lane and ended it with a plea for telecom-industry professionals to help the underserved.

As a nonelected official with the government agency, he and his staff do not write rules or vote on issues--their main mission is to stay out of the headlines. But with that caveat out of the way, he was able to share his views as someone who has worked in telecom since around 1992.

Chambers reminded attendees at Genband's annual customer and partner summit of the heydays of the 1990s and the legislative work that was going on amid fierce competition. Companies were investing in infrastructure left and right. He didn't spend much time on the current state of affairs in terms of proposed acquisitions--such as Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSA) bid to buy Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC)--and other consolidation issues that are on the table, but he did use his stage time to encourage audience members to consider the needs of those who don't yet have broadband.

The FCC has been working on the Rural Broadband Experiment, whereby it asked the public to submit general, creative proposals for getting broadband services to underserved areas, with a primary intent to encourage nontraditional entities to participate.

Nontraditional and traditional proposals came streaming in, varying from using TV white spaces to other ways of pulling fiber to remote homes. Within a matter of weeks, the FCC had received more than 1,000 proposals from many nontraditional providers, Chambers said, noting that the commission is still in the review process.

The FCC spends money in areas where it's uneconomical for nongovernment entities to invest, and although it might be difficult to turn the sparse population numbers into a profitable business, the people who don't have broadband believe it's essential to their communities, he said.

"I believe in all of you," he told the audience. "I believe that what you all do for a living is vital, and my small part in this is just to try to figure out how best to use limited federal dollars to get some broadband deployed" in areas where the carriers might not otherwise go.

The government spends nearly $10 billion a year through various programs on getting broadband to underserved areas, and in the scheme of it, that's not a lot of money. But for areas that need it, including schools and rural areas, it is significant. One of the most popular places for people to access free Internet is not coffee shops but public libraries.

Chambers said he spends a fair amount of time working on relay services, and he described the current way relay services work, with a hearing-impaired person initiating a call and an interpreter in the middle of the call relaying information between the hearing-impaired person and the person with whom he or she needs to communicate.

But that technology was developed over a decade ago and didn't develop and grow, in part because it's a relatively small market. Although other aspects of technology have matured, the relay services haven't. He said he's trying to engage with anyone who can think of new and better ways to do speech-to-text services or other, newer ways to communicate.  

He closed the session with an appeal for making improvements for underserved areas. "There are those who need our services," he said. "There are those whose lives would be enhanced by access to broadband services--all the services you all work on." Maybe it's not profitable for a company, but "maybe you do it because we all want to give back."

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