Mignon’s Greatest Hits

by Marcella Gadson and David Honig on November 4, 2013

FCC Commissioner Mignon ClyburnAny reckoning of the greatest chairs in FCC history would undeniably include Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn.  In her six-month tenure, Chairwoman Clyburn has delivered extraordinary value for entrepreneurs and consumers and, especially, for minorities and women trying to break into the nation’s most influential industries and the one-sixth of the economy these industries represent.

As we prepare for Chairwoman Clyburn to pass the torch to Tom Wheeler this morning, we fondly look back and remember twelve of “Mignon’s Greatest Hits” for civil rights, entrepreneurship, and technological progress for our nation.

      1. Restoring WHGH-AM – The Only Voice for Minority Listeners in
Thomasville, GA

In her first week on the job, Chairwoman Clyburn stepped forward to correct one of the greatest administrative nightmares ever to face a minority broadcaster.

When Thomasville, Georgia’s WHGH-AM Hot 840 Jamz radio station failed to renew its license on time in April 2012 due to a minor administrative error, the FCC actually forced the station to shut down.  To appreciate how draconian this was, consider that when a citizen is late renewing her dog license, hunting license, or driver’s license, the government doesn’t take away her dog, her gun, or her car – it just processes the late renewal and imposes a fine.  But in this case, the FCC deprived the station owner of his business and the African American community of its only radio station.  The National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters, MMTC, Congressman Sanford Bishop, and many of the station’s listeners petitioned the FCC in protest.

Thankfully, Chairwoman Clyburn personally intervened this June; the Commission then granted the much-needed waiver restoring the station’s call sign, accepting a late renewal application, and granting special temporary authority to resume operations pending renewal.

     2. Reducing Predatory Prison Phone Rates

For ten years, the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, the Prison Phone Rates Collaborative, and numerous civil rights organizations asked the FCC to do something about the often outrageous rates prison phone companies charge for calls to and from inmates.  In 2003, Martha Wright-Reed filed a petition with the FCC, urging the FCC to cap all interstate inmate calling rates.  Mrs. Wright had been forced to choose between paying for medication or speaking to her grandson in prison one day per week at a cost of up to $0.89 per minute, in addition to a $3.95 connection fee.

For nearly a decade, the FCC made little effort to move the issue forward until then-Commissioner Clyburn championed the cause last November.  In August 2013, Chairwoman Clyburn initiated an historic vote that placed a cap on interstate prison phone rates, thus providing immediate relief to inmates and their families.  The FCC announced that it had taken “long-overdue steps to ensure that the rates for interstate long-distance calls made by prison inmates are just, reasonable and fair,” citing studies that “make clear that inmates who maintain contact with family and community while in prison have reduced rates of recidivism and are more likely to become productive citizens upon their release.”

     3. Introducing MWBE Participation as a Key Factor in the Wireless Competition Report

Every year, the FCC submits a study to Congress on the extent and vitality of competition in the mobile wireless industry.  This spring, MMTC filed a letter asking the FCC to include MWBE participation in its competition report and “take proactive steps to monitor and potentially improve its policies designed to increase competition in the mobile wireless industry.”

Chairwoman Clyburn took action:  in July, the Wireless Competition Bureau issued a Public Notice seeking comment on “levels of, and opportunities for, participation in the wireless marketplace for MWBEs.”  No opposing comments have been filed, and thus it appears likely that, for the first time, the FCC will treat MWBE participation as an essential element of its competition policies.

     4. Demystifying and Defending the Universal Service Fund’s Longstanding Program to Help the Poor Secure Lifeline Telephone Service

MMTC has previously reported on the misinformation being spread about the Lifeline Program in recent years.  The Lifeline program, established nearly three decades ago under the Reagan Administration to provide home telephone service to low-income households, was expanded twenty years later under the Bush II Administration to also provide cell phones to these households.  The program is a vital means of ensuring that very low-income Americans are able to communicate with their jobs, their doctors, their churches, and their children’s schools without having to resort to the nation’s few remaining coin telephones.

In September, at Chairwoman Clyburn’s initiative, the FCC, in conjunction with the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates, held its fourth “National Telephone Discount Lifeline Awareness Week,” with a focus on demystifying and reforming the program.  This year, the FCC prepared a broad array of materials to educate consumers about the program, with an emphasis on new rules governing eligibility criteria and non-duplication of assistance.

     5. Revitalizing the E-rate Program

The Universal Service Fund’s Schools and Libraries Program, or “E-rate,” was established in 1996 to provide universal access to advanced telecommunications services in schools and libraries through discounts to these institutions of up to 90 percent.  FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has notably championed the issue, urging the Commission to adopt “E-rate 2.0” to “protect what we have already done, build on it, and put this program on a course to provide higher speed and greater opportunities.”

On July 19th, the Commission initiated a thorough review and modernization of the E-rate program with a focus on 21st century broadband needs of schools and libraries.  The FCC’s release notes that the “Commission’s initiative … marks the first comprehensive update of the E-rate program since 1997.”  Chairwoman Clyburn, always a strong advocate for our nation’s children, declared in a statement that “[w]e must ensure that our young people, teachers, and the millions of citizens that use libraries each year have access to the tools they need to compete and succeed in the digital age. We need to do this for our children and we need to do this for our nation.”

     6. Approving the Largest Minority Spectrum Deal in U.S. History

On September 30th, Grain Management, LLC, a minority-owned firm, closed on a $287 million transaction in which it acquired 700 MHz B block spectrum from Verizon Wireless and AWS C block spectrum from AT&T.  The transaction marked the largest minority spectrum deal in U.S. history and was a momentous win for the cause of minority ownership in the telecom industry.  In its quest for broad outreach to minority- and women-owned telecommunications companies and entrepreneurs, Verizon Wireless had engaged the National Urban League, the National Council of La Raza, and MMTC’s telecom brokerage, which advised some 45 firms on procedures and strategies for bidding on the spectrum.

The entire process took over a year.  Under Chairwoman Clyburn’s leadership, the Commission and its Wireless Telecommunications Bureau worked diligently to complete its review of the transaction, ultimately concluding that the spectrum sale “would result in transaction-specific public interest benefits, including by promoting spectrum license opportunities for entrepreneurs and other small businesses.”

     7. Solving the Interoperability Crisis

Interoperability ensures that one telecom carrier’s spectrum can be used by other carriers in a way that avoids technical incompatibility.  Sometimes a carrier would withhold interoperability from others unless heavily compensated – a cost passed on to consumers.  On October 28th, after a pathbreaking multiparty negotiation initiated and organized by Chairwoman Clyburn, the FCC issued a Report and Order resolving the issue.  According to the FCC’s statement, “Actions taken in this item improve wireless availability and competition, spur investment in and build-out of the networks in the Lower 700 MHz band, and result in significant savings to the consumer.”

In her own statement, Chairwoman Clyburn explained that “the quickest way for consumers to see the benefits of an interoperability solution . . . was not a regulatory mandate that would likely be challenged in court, but a collaborative industry wide solution with a timetable for implementation.”

     8. Proposing New Rules to Improve Rural Call Completion

Residents of rural areas have long complained about significant problems receiving calls from long distance and wireless phones on their landline phones.  These problems range from poor call quality to endless ringing or dead air, which can have life-threatening consequences in an emergency.  According to the FCC, “These problems may be the result of several factors, including higher-than-average charges for call termination in rural areas, and the numerous times that a call can be handed off among providers in a call path.”

On October 28th, the Clyburn Commission unanimously adopted rules that would overcome these call completion problems and ensure reliable long-distance service to rural America.  Among other rules, the FCC has required key providers to record and report rural call completion data to the agency so it can investigate and eliminate the problem, and providers will be barred from transmitting audible rings to callers when their call has not actually connected on the other end.

     9. Resolving the Most Far-Reaching Retransmission Consent Case

There has been a long-standing controversy over the rates cable systems pay broadcasters to rebroadcast over-the-air programs.  When cable companies and broadcasters cannot reach an agreement, their customers can lose access to channels and programming they pay their providers to see.

This fall, Time Warner Cable and CBS had a bitter disagreement over retransmission consent, and both sides asked Chairwoman Clyburn to intervene and take a position.  She handled it adroitly, deciding not to take a position, and instead encouraging the parties to settle while leaving the door open to FCC intervention if they couldn’t resolve their differences.

Her approach worked.  Thereafter, Chairwoman Clyburn said in a statement, “I am pleased CBS and Time Warner Cable have resolved their retransmission consent negotiations, which for too long have deprived millions of consumers of access to CBS programming.  At the end of the day, media companies should accept shared responsibility for putting their audience’s interests above other interests and do all they can to avoid these kinds of disputes in the future.”

     10. Commencing First Systemic FCC Hispanic Television Study

The FCC has long faced the question of how to promote diversity in television and advance multilingual communications.  The Commission has never specifically analyzed the Spanish-language television market in a systematic way, although one-third of Hispanics rely on over-the-air television, a rate triple that of whites.  The Commission has little data on the extent of Hispanic-oriented programming and barriers to entry that affect Hispanic entrepreneurship.

Last week, the Clyburn Commission announced that the FCC “will conduct a study of the relationships among Hispanic television station ownership, Hispanic-oriented programming, and Hispanic television viewing” as part of the FCC’s commitment to encourage broadcast diversity.  In its statement, the Commission reaffirmed its understanding that “diverse participation in the broadcast industry and access to diverse sources of information are vital to a robust democracy.”

     11. Taking Proactive Steps to Revitalize AM Radio

One of Chairwoman Clyburn’s greatest accomplishments is her action on the AM Revitalization Proceeding.  MMTC has championed AM revitalization since 2002, having noted that AM is the entry and heritage technology for minority broadcasters, two-thirds of whose stations are on the AM band.  Commissioner Ajit Pai has made the rescuing of AM radio his number one cause.

On October 31st, the Commission released a Notice of Proposed Rule Making proposing six major, concrete engineering measures that will “introduce a number of possible improvements to the Amplitude Modulation, or AM, radio service and the rules pertaining to AM broadcasting.”  In a statement, MMTC declared that “[t]he overhaul of the AM radio rules will promote diversity and competition, ease the path of entry for minorities, and help remedy many of the present effects of past discrimination.”

     12. Promoting Minority Broadcast Ownership by Relaxing Archaic Foreign Ownership Restrictions

Since 2004, MMTC has advocated for the relaxation of the FCC’s antiquated, 101-year-old policy that bars foreign investors from owning more than a 25 percent stake in a domestic broadcast station.  Relaxing the foreign ownership policy would provide a new source of capital for minority entrepreneurs and open the door to reciprocal entry into overseas markets.

On October 24th, with the enthusiastic support of Commissioners Pai and Rosenworcel, the Commission announced that at its November 14th open meeting, the Commission will “consider a Declaratory Ruling to clarify the agency’s policies and procedures in reviewing broadcast applications for transfer of control, or requests for declaratory ruling, pursuant to section 310(b)(4) of the Communications Act of 1934.” Thereafter, the Commission’s Media Bureau will be able to process applications contemplating more than 25 percent foreign ownership on a case-by-case basis.

In a statement, MMTC declared that “[w]e are delighted the Commission is taking steps to address access to capital, an endemic problem for minorities in broadcasting, and therefore expanding the diversity of information available to the public.  This is a huge victory for the Clyburn Commission and for struggling broadcasters.  It’s also a textbook example of a deregulatory initiative that benefits underserved communities.”

A Legacy of Strong Leadership and Action

Delivering these twelve Greatest Hits in six months as an interim Chair sets a record of achievement that is truly extraordinary.  Incoming Chairman Tom Wheeler, who will be sworn in today, is fortunate to receive the keys to the FCC from so accomplished a leader as Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn.

    • David Honig is the President Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, which he cofounded in 1986. MMTC has represented over 70 minority, civil rights and religious national organizations in selected proceedings before the FCC, and it operates the nation’s only full service, minority-owned media and telecom brokerage.

      • Marcella Gadson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Broadband and Social Justice online magazine and Director of Communications at the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC).
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