Calls to crisis and suicide prevention hotlines have spiked since the start of the global Coronavirus pandemic.
This comes at a time when rates of suicide in the US have been skyrocketing.
The Federal Communications Commission is doing something to help people in crisis.
So now what FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is with us to give us the details on a new plan.
Well, I've recently announced that on July 16, the FCC will vote on formally designating 988 as a three digit number for suicide prevention and mental health and calls to that number would be directed to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
We're very excited about this initiative and could not come at a better time with suicide rates in the country reaching epidemic levels.
Talk to me a little bit about that.
I mean, why is the FCC, doing this now?
Well, in 2018, Congress passed legislation known as the national suicide hotline Improvement Act and one of the things that legislation required the FCC to do was To explore the feasibility of a three digit number or some number for suicide prevention.
There's a current suicide prevention lifeline 1-800-273-8255 or 273 talk which I strongly encourage people to call now, if they were struggling.
But going forward they asked the SEC to look at this three digit number so in August of 2019, the SEC staff took a look.
Made some recommendations to the FCC and it focused on 988 as opposed to one of the so called n one one numbers 211311411 etc.
Focus on 988 as being particularly good option, the FCC proposed that and July 16 will formally I hope vote to designate 988 as that number and it's been a long time coming but I think we are finally close to that finish line and I look forward to the exciting time ahead, in making it operational.
Tell us a little bit about the reason why this is needed, you know,>> yeah,>> the breadth of the crisis that we're that we're in.
I will say it's obviously a professional Obligation of the FCC for me, but it's also a personal cause for me.
I think suicide prevention and mental health has affected so many people in our daily lives and especially when it comes to suicide load.
As I mentioned, the rate is now approaching levels we haven't seen since World War Two and vulnerable populations.
Are especially hardhead.
We've seen for example with veterans that some 20 veterans every day die by suicide.
LGBTQ youth are also at risk.
They contemplate suicide at a much higher rate than heterosexual youth Youth some 1.8 million LGBTQ youth think about suicide every year.
For African American teens, a report recently came out showing that self reported suicide attempts among black teens had increased by 73%, between 1991 and 2017.
And a lot of these statistics come before the current pandemic when of course, so staying at home and other types of protocols created a sense of isolation for those who may be struggling and so, to me at least the ability to connect those who need help more easily with those who can provide it is absolutely critical.
And I'm reminded of one of the last trips I did before the pandemic, cause the seat ending to the FCC travel, which was to Toledo, Ohio, where I visited a mental health crisis center I met with counselors who talked to those.
We're struggling with suicide and it's an incredibly difficult situation.
One that for too long I think has been swept under the rug.
And our hope is that by not just designating this number, we make it easier to access number but Also we remove some of the stigma that surrounds suicidal ideation and mental health illness.
This is nothing to be ashamed of.
Many people are struggling with it or know someone who is.
And I think it's time for us to have a very thoughtful national conversation about how to get people to help they need Yeah, and I think I've read some statistics that there are real spikes in the calls to the lifeline that exists now, you know, particularly during this pandemic.
So it's, you know, I know you've been working on this issue for a while and the FCC has been working on it, but it almost seems like it's you know Even more critical now.
I mean, do you do feel?
Yes, I absolutely do.
And one of the interesting things is that there are approximately 2.2 million calls to the lifeline.
These on an annual basis, but we know they're millions.
Millions more who have contemplated suicide or had suicidal attempts and the like.
And so there's clearly a Delta there that we wanna be able to capture to make sure that those additional people who haven't called the lifeline are able to get the help they need.
And the other interesting factoid I know it's more anecdotal but I think it's telling in 2017 the rapper logic came out with a song called 1-800-273-8255, the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
And a lot of the advocates I've talked to said that the number of calls to the lifeline spiked after that Especially after he performed that song, it prompted events like the Grammys or the MTV Music Video Awards.
I think it highlights the fact that for a lot of people, awareness is a big issue that they don't know that the lifelines resources are there.
And once they become aware of it, they're willing to reach out for help.
And so our hope is that 90 days.
Which of course, as an echo of that 911 number that everybody knows well for emergencies.
Our hope is that in the time to come 988 will become embedded in our cultural memory to such an extent that we will instantly tell our friends, our loved ones.
Look, if you have an issue, call 988.
There's somebody there who could help you.
That is kind of muscle memory.
We want to encourage in the years to come.
So why why did you guys think 988 was a better option than as you mentioned, number ending in 1,1 like 311 or 211 or something like that.
Yeah, we took a very detailed look at this and you can see the analysis and the SEC documents on this which are available of firstname.lastname@example.org.
But in a nutshell Every one of those n one one numbers is in use to some extent.
In fact, some of them are very heavily used with six one one for example, being used some 297 million times in the previous year.
And so what we wanted to do was come up with a number that wouldn't have to share use with Some other function.
For example, with the telephone repairs, you call a certain number for information you call a different number.
We wanted it to be a dedicated number so that people who are receiving those calls are the ones who are trained to answer them.
And secondly, we wanted to make sure that the transition.
To that number would be as smooth as possible and as quick as possible.
And what we found was with some of the other numbers, there'll be difficulties aging that numbers it's so called getting rid of the legacy use and transitioning it to the new use, whereas 988 it's not assigned as an area code right now.
Most people only use it as a local dialing prefix.
Those first three numbers have a phone number, and so it's not as widely used.
And so our hope is that once folks read our order come to understand how we reasoned.
They'll come to see the 988 I think was the best option of all of them.
And do you feel like you mentioned this it's an echo to 911.
So, that might stick in people's minds a little bit.
There's no question.
I think that we often underestimate the power of that single number and I've seen the power of it reflected my conversations with international counterparts when they marvel at the fact We have nationwide a number of dedicated emergency services.
In India for example, until recently, there were many different codes for many different types of emergencies and as a result, nobody knew all of them.
You have to keep a booth pace a piece of paper.
Fix your refrigerator.
And so the same thing with 1980 I think is going to happen in the time to come that will come to be a part of the national conversation with gay youth who are struggling or with people who come back with certain trauma from war and are like.
And they'll remember Okay, 90 days that is the dedicated resource, and I know it's obviously in the early stages of the conversation, but Over time, I'm confident that it will come to have the same type of staying power in our minds as 911 does.>> So you mentioned that you hope this starts a national conversation and then it it really eliminates this whole idea of stigma.
How do you think that that's really possible with I mean, it's a number, right?
What how is this going to change things on that scale?
I think the responses I've gotten ever since I announced that I was proposing 90 days the number of a few months back And the commission adopted it.
And ever since we announced that we are formally gonna designate it, the response has been very, very positive.
I think there are a lot of people out there who see this as A recognition by the Federal Government that this is an issue that demands Federal attention.
That this is an issue that knows no [UNKNOWN], does not discriminate on the basis of race or age or any orientation, anything else.
And I think it's a recognition of the fact that we've now come to the point in our culture where we can have an open discussion about the fact that Life is not easy for many, many people, many people are struggling with a whole kind of whole bunch of different issues and just as in the healthcare context where we wouldn't bat an eyelash if somebody who breaks a leg or Has asthma needs to go get treatment?
I think we need to think about mental health issues in the same way and our hope is that the conversation spurred by 90 days.
While it may seem technical in nature, dialing 90 days on the phone, nonetheless brings about a greater cultural awareness of the fact that many people are out there many of our fellow citizens perhaps maybe some of our loved ones, Are hurting and they need to help.
So just even having the conversation you think will will help D stigmatize some of the folks are facing.
And I mentioned that visit I did in Toledo and I asked them the mental health advocates I met with you What would this number mean to you?
You're already doing this work anyway, does it make that big of a difference?
And they said, We can't even tell you what a big difference it would make because Obviously it would help us provide help to people in our community a little easier.
But more importantly, it would bring suicide prevention and mental health to a level that right now it doesn't really happen.
I mean it is only those people People happen to know about the Suicide Prevention Lifeline and talk about it.
Mental Health still is seen as a an issue that shouldn't be discussed or can't be discussed in an open way and just knowing that there is a nationally dedicated.
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Yeah, that's a very good question.
And we do anticipate that there will be an increase in the number of calls to 98 and thus to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, where 988 would route and that's part of the reason why we've been in a conversation with some of our federal counterparts.
For example, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Veterans Affairs and others.
To talk about how we expect the implementation to work over the next couple of years, and it may be that those agencies go to Congress and seek additional funding to help staff up, to anticipate that increase in call volume.
And for our part of the SEC, at least we wanna make sure we do everything we can To aid those efforts in the halls of Congress, but also across the country, to let people know that the resources will be there.
When is this going to go live?
So it will be nationwide.
The nationwide implementation deadline is July 16, 2022, which is two years after the FCC vote in a few weeks.
I understand that that seems like a long time.
But part of the problem is there's a long implementation gap especially for those legacy providers who may have aging equipment in their network.
So there are two basic problems.
One is that to get to 988 across the country There are 87 area codes in which there is seven digit dialing.
That is you just dial seven numbers and it goes to the destination and that also use 98 as a prefix as the first three numbers.
So that's the first implementation challenge.
The second one is there are many other switches Other network equipment across the country that for other reasons, cannot currently dial 988 directly.
Those tend to be more of the legacy providers, rural telephone companies, for example, and others.
And so it's the issue of the long tail for those of you who are familiar with this phenomenon.
Even though there are more modern networks that are able to reconfigure relatively quickly to reach 988, there are some legacy networks that cannot.
And instead of having this patchwork, where whether you happen to be able to reach 988, or the Suicide Prevention Lifeline depends on whether you're in a 98 compliant jurisdiction or not.
We wanted there be a uniform implementation date.
So that there's not consumer confusion.
And so we're going to be looking forward to doing everything we can to meet that implementation deadline as soon as possible and work with the industry and with mental health advocates and others to make it happen.
And then who is going to be you know, getting the word out?
So to speak, that this is gonna be available.
Is it gonna be the FCC?
Launching a campaign, are you gonna be in partnership with other groups trying to educate the public?
So certainly we will use the bully pulpit as best we can to get the word out.
This is something that as I mentioned, it's not just Professional responsibility for me it's a personal cause and so I'll do everything I can to get the word out.
We're also working very well with samsa at the HHS as well as the Veterans Affairs Department, to help them,also encourage them to get the word out.
And elected officials have been fantastic on this issue.
Just yesterday I had a great conversation with support senator Cory Gardner from Colorado, who's been an advocate on this issue along with Senator Tammy Baldwin from Wisconsin and on the House side as well.
We have very dedicated advocates and a congressman Chris Stewart from Utah and Congressman Seth Moulton from Massachusetts.
As you can tell, this is here, Republicans, Democrats, Senators, representatives, all of them focused on this cause It has overwhelming support in Congress, which I think means that you're gonna see a lot of people in elected office too using their platform to spread the good word.>> You mentioned a couple times that this is a really a personal cause for you.
I don't know if you want to explain or talk about why is this so important to you personally?
Yeah, I mean, it's hard to talk about, what I will say is that this issue is not a stranger to me.
And while it's difficult to talk about it, what I will say is that I think about it every day and how it has affected those who I love and I don't want anyone to have to go through that and yeah.
No, no, I know.
I think we all feel this.
I think we've all been touched by it.
Yeah, you had mentioned it a couple times so I wanted to give you an opportunity.
And since I have you, I'd like to also ask some other questions that a lot of our readers really are interested in and Some of our favorite topics, 5G and Roby Calls.
So since the pandemic has struck us here [LAUGH] Can you tell us a little bit about like, where are we with 5G's nation?
Are we seeing rollouts you know slowing down or are things on pace?
You know how things been affected by what's been happening with all these shutdowns and.
Yeah, very good question.
And thus far what we have seen is that 5G deployment has proceeded a pace there were some hiccups.
We heard for example from some wireless infrastructure builders that were having difficulties getting PPE that will allow the workers to go into the field safely and deploy some of this network equipment but by and large, at least, what we've also heard is that in the month since.
People are able to go out there, and do the job, especially to construct most wireless infrastructure, it's doesn't require as much of course in person contact, or close contact with other people.
And so they're able to do that in 5g, small cell deployments has been going up, same thing with fiber construction as far as we've heard, and.
For our court at least, we've continued to go gangbusters ahead and we've got a 5g spectrum auction coming up on July 23.
Another c band auction coming up in December 8. We just updated our wireless infrastructure rules by making clear what section 6409 which is just intended to streamline wireless infrastructure deployment means we did adopted that a couple of weeks ago.
So we've been very, very busy moving ahead and We hope to encourage a 5G deployment of course, because some of the things that have become important during the pandemic telehealth and remote learning and the like, are going to depend increasingly on 5G in the time to come.
So I see 5G at least as having an even stronger use case now We've gone through the experience we've gone through over the last several months.
Yeah, I was gonna ask you if if you feel like you know the public is sort of more ready for 5g than ever before.
I mean here we are talking to each other from.
I'm at home, you're at home [LAUGH].
We're doing this interview over, the Internet, do you feel like people really get it now and feel like that, in a way this crisis has kind of helped people realise the importance of it?
Absolutely, and I think I was just mentioning this to a friend earlier today that if this had happened 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, all of this would have been unthinkable society's daily functions.
Were Would pretty much ceased if not slow down substantially.
And so I without this kind of activity, I don't think we'd be able to do a lot and going forward.
That's one of the reasons why we've been so motivated in the last three weeks sorry, three months.
The SEC to focus on our bread and butter work of getting the 5G spectrum out there.
We adopted a couple of months ago, unanimously I would add a really important initiative to get 1200MHz of 6GHz WiFi out there.
You This is going to mean gigabit Wi Fi that anybody can use with your rural fixed wireless carrier or you're in an urban area looking to serve an apartment building, for example, getting those hundred 60 or even 320 megabit megahertz wide channels.
To deliver Wi Fi over an unlicensed network is going to be huge.
And so, all of that bread and butter work I've been so excited about the FCC has really been proving its worth over the last three months.
And so to me at least, we're gonna be going forward with that same sense of purpose to make sure that.
The wireless future, nobody is going to be left behind and the innovators and entrepreneurs here in the United States will have a chance to take these building blocks and run with it to deliver even better applications and services.
And I guess that would go for Boadband in general, right?
I mean, that's
To try to get Broadband to everybody.
And, again, it seems like the crisis has kind of brought that to light.
Don't you feel like in the.
Minds of Congress and, I know you've been pushing For more money [LAUGH]
Solve that problem.
Yeah, to me.
I mean, I know it's unusual.
But to me, there's no better return on investment than connecting every American with digital opportunity for my earliest days.
I've said that closing the digital divide It got to be the FCC is top priority.
I think it's now become a national priority.
Every single elected representative I talked to people I talked to you out in the field have said that broadband has really met its moments that's to be able to tell work and do remote learning and telehealth and even just streaming Netflix to your kids if that's what you want to do.
All these things require the digital connection and too many Americans don't have it or don't have the conductivity they need and so on.
To me, whether it's the COVID-19 telehealth program which we've stood up and it's delivering right now, whether it's the real digital opportunity Fund that's going to be starting on October 29 to get unserved parts of the country.
On the right side of the divide was the 5G fund where that's encouraging non geostationary satellite orbit constellations.
All of this, I think, plays a part and so we're really excited about what this will mean For the future of the American consumer going forward, but I think over the last three months, little vignettes that have been proven so important to me and telling the story is some of the special temporary authority we've given to get temporary access.
Access to spectrum to some wireless companies, and in particular fixed wireless companies.
These are of course, as you know, these small companies out in rural areas.
That can't be where you often can't find a business case for laying a fiber line but by giving temporary access to the 5.9 gigahertz spectrum.
For example, we've heard from a number of fixed wireless companies.
for example, Amplex in Luckey, Ohio was able to increase its broadband bandwidth.
But 75% the same thing for inner Max, a small fixed wireless company in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho companies I'm sure nobody most people never heard of.
But these are the companies on the frontlines of closing the digital divide.
They're able to take that temporary access Provide connectivity help get people the connections they need.
So that's just a small glimpse of the connected future that we hope to secure in the time to come.>> So now on to robo calls.
I know this is another important initiative that you've been pushing at the FCC.
And you guys have done a lot of work in this area to cut back on those annoying calls.
What can you tell us about what you what's been done and whether what the FCC has been doing has been effective?
Yes, you know, before the pandemic, this has been our top consumer protection priority.
As you know, we've implemented a new mandate for caller I.D. authentication to make sure that the number that pops up on your phone.
Is actually assigned to the person who's supposed to be assigned [UNKNOWN] Calling.
In addition, we've taken other enforcement steps and over the last three months in particular, we've been incredibly aggressive.
For example, in partnership with the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice.
We've gone after so called gateway providers.
These are US based telephone companies, very small ones in most cases they\g are typically the first point of contact Some of these scam robo calls when they enter the US phone networks.
And so we sent letters to six of these gateway providers and said, We have detected based on consultation with us telecom trace back group and industry group that tries to figure out where these calls are coming from.
We've detected that you this get your gateway provider are facilitating a lot of these scam robo calls being launched on US networks.
You have 48 hours to either stop those robocalls or risk being cut off in the US phone networks yourselves.
And every single one of them complied within the deadline cutting off those robocalls.
So we're going to look to broaden that effort to make sure that a lot of these scam robocalls never get to consumers phone in the first place.
And speaking of that, we're going to be voting also on July 16th on a natural another initiative that Would clarify essentially that phone companies will be better able to block some of these calls.
And given more legal clarity if they're dealing with another phone company that is essentially aware of the problem but not doing a lot about it.
Then, they can start making sure that those phones, those scam calls, won't get launched onto their own consumers phones and so a lot more to come and I know it's a frustration for consumers.
It certainly is for me every time I, I see one of those calls.
It bugs me.
But now I'm starting to see spam risk or something like that popping up on my phone, which gives me a little bit of hope at least that some of the blocking and labeling tools we've empowered the industry to use, or at least going into effect.