In high school, I participated in a stage production where one role was played by different cast members. Regardless of who filled that role, everyone else had to be ready to play their part. In some ways, this reminds me of the current Federal Communications Commission.
With the departure of Chairman Julius Genachowski and Commissioner Robert McDowell earlier this year, the agency is missing some key cast members. As the communications industry awaits selection and confirmation of their replacements, the current members remain true to their roles of identifying where and how the Commission can best carry out its statutory mandates.
Such was the discussion last week at the 11th Annual MMTC Access to Capital and Telecom Policy Conference. FCC Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Ajit Pai shared their thoughts on what the agency could do to move forward on media and telecom policies that would enhance diversity and competition. As former FCC Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate moderated the discussion, both Commissioners expressed that the agency and the industry are witnessing historic transitions, be it in the form of the first woman chair or the first reverse spectrum auction.
Raising the Curtain on the IP Switch
The way consumers access information has changed immensely in the past decade. Advances in technology led to the rise in use of wireless devices such as smartphones, netbooks, and tablets. All of these are increasing demand for wireless spectrum, while allowing for greater opportunities in access to education and healthcare. The next Commission will need to craft regulations that meet these demands, while increasing opportunities for diverse ownership and ensuring that more consumers have access to broadband technology.
As more carriers begin to rely upon IP networks to provide voice and broadband service to consumers, there is a push to move all traffic to IP, abandoning the older, less efficient copper lines of the public telephone switched network (PTSN). However, questions remain regarding the impact upon consumers who rely on landline phones serviced through PTSN. As Commissioner Rosenworcel noted, the FCC could do more to inspire confidence in network investment, while inspiring confidence in consumers to take advantage of IP networks.
Rosenworcel also noted that the industry lost almost half of its switched-phone lines in last decade. This makes continued investment in this 20th century technology a losing proposition for most voice service carriers. Further, approximately one-third of the homes in our country have dropped landline service altogether, particularly in African American and Hispanic communities. For those on tight budgets and who rely exclusively on wireless service, network investment and reliability are critical.
Both Commissioners laid out general principles that should guide the transition, including that changes made remain consistent with Congressional intent as it relates to consumer protection and competition in the market. Commissioner Pai would like to see the agency move forward with pilot programs that will identify problems that might arise during the IP transition. Earlier this year, a number of civil rights organizations endorsed such programs.
Focus on the Future
The Commissioners agreed that new laws aren’t always necessary and that the agency needs to approach new challenges in more innovative ways. One such challenge Commissioner Rosenworcel took on is to connect students to high-speed broadband by updating the E-Rate program. E-Rate 2.0, as it’s called, will aim to provide every school with access to 100 Megabits per 1000 students by 2015, and by 2020, every school should have access to 1 Gigabit per 1000 students. President Obama included E-Rate 2.0 as part of the ConnectEd program that debuted last month. Commissioner Pai, who will release a statement on E-Rate 2.0 later this week, stated that the Commission should focus less on process and more on needs of students, ensuring that E-Rate is updated for the 21st century classroom.
Broadband speed is also critical to telemedicine services. Reflecting on his father’s work as a doctor in rural Kansas, driving from one city to the next, Commissioner Pai remarked on how telemedicine is leveling the playing field for access to advanced medical specialists. However, access is often not available across state borders due to different certification requirements for each state. Commissioner Rosenworcel suggested that licensing regulations be updated to resemble the Servicemembers’ Telemedicine & E-Health Portability (STEP) Act, which would expand the current Department of Defense (DOD) state licensure exemption to allow credentialed health care professionals to work across state borders without having to obtain a new state license.
Changing Scenes: Promoting Diversity That Reflects Our Nation
Participation by minorities and women in the communications fields is a subject that is certainly not lost on the current commissioners. The gender, ethnic, and political diversity of the three sitting commissioners – including Acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn, who is the first woman, and the first woman of color, to chair the agency – is a mark of this country’s greatness, according to Commissioner Pai. However, the agency has been slow to act upon many proposals that could increase ownership diversity within the communications industries.
“Media ownership plays a powerful role in the democratic process,” stated Commissioner Rosenworcel discussing the delay of the 2010 quadrennial ownership review. The FCC recently called for comment on a study offered by MMTC to examine the effects of newspaper and radio/TV cross-ownership on participation by minorities and women in broadcasting. The Commission has yet to complete the 2010 ownership review, and the 2014 review process is right around the corner. Commission Pai expressed his hopes that the full Commission will “put the quad back in quadrennial,” and address many of the issues remanded by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in the 2011 Prometheus decision.
While access to capital was cited as the primary barrier to ownership diversity, many portions of the Communications Act allow the agency to promote competition in other, race-neutral ways, given the constitutional impediments to acting on race-specific proposals. Commissioner Rosenworcel noted that Sec. 309(j) provides bidding credits for auctions. Prior to 2006 rule changes, these credits were responsible for designated entities receiving 50 percent of licenses in spectrum auctions. Many agree with Rosenworcel’s assessment of the reverse and forward auctions processes as “painfully, epically complex,” she believes that the Commission must prioritize making the auction attractive for those who want to surrender spectrum, protecting broadcasters who will retain their signals, and ensuring funds are raised for the public safety network.
Both commissioners offered a number of suggestions for increasing diversity in the communications industries. Commissioner Rosenworcel cited the low rates of participation in STEM by minorities and women, suggesting that improving the pipeline for these fields would increase participation and provide mentors for the next generation of tech entrepreneurs. Commissioner Pai suggested that the foreign ownership rules for broadcast be revised to provide flexibility for investment, similar to wireless, where foreign investment is not capped at 20 percent. He further suggested that the FCC incentivize incubator programs and mentorship programs similar to the National Association of Broadcasters’ Broadcast Leadership Training program.
As the industry awaits confirmation of the remaining members of the Commission, it is clear that the sitting Commissioners understand the importance of their roles in ensuring opportunities are available for diverse participants in the FCC regulated fields. Acting Chairwoman Clyburn was unable to participate in the discussion because she was presiding over a workshop to investigate the high phone rates charged for inmate calling services, perhaps an active demonstration that she, too, understands the important role and the power that the commission holds, and is ready for action.
Joycelyn F. James, Esq. is a graduate of the Institute for Communications Law Studies at the Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law. She currently serves as the Cathy Hughes Fellow for the Minority Media & Telecommunications Council, where she works on matters that focus on the advancement of minority and women’s entrepreneurship in the nation’s media and telecommunications industries.