During the second day of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council’s Fourth Annual Broadband and Social Justice Summit, participants and online viewers were privy to over two hours of lively discussion with past and present members of the FCC.
Current Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Ajit Pai were up first in a Q&A moderated by former Commissioner Honorable Deborah Taylor Tate. They were followed by four former chairs of the FCC.
MMTC President David Honig, who moderated that discussion, noted,
“This is the first time we’ve ever had four former chairs of the commission all in one place. It’s the best of the best minds and at a time when we are transitioning from an industrial to a digital age, from PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) to IP and hopefully from second-class citizenship to universal first-class citizenship.”
The former FCC Chairs’ Roundtable featured Hon. Michael Copps, Hon. Reed Hundt, Hon. Michael Powell and Hon. Richard (Dick) Wiley. The former chairs as well as Commissioners Clyburn and Pai gathered to discuss issues of diversity, collaboration among industry and lawmakers, consumer interest and the role of the FCC.
Taylor Tate began discussion by asking what can be expected from the FCC this year.
“We made some progress in the area of Spectrum in 2012,” Pai noted. “We kicked off the notice of proposed rule making for the incentive auction proceeding. Which will be one of the most important tasks with regard to spectrum this year and coming years.”
Pai went on to elaborate that, “When it comes to broadband one size does not necessarily fit all. Amongst minority communities in particular, there is greater adoption of mobile broadband; and that heightens the importance of the FCC taking prompt action to bring more spectrum into commercial marketplace for mobile broadband.”
“We also have lifeline reform pilot projects underway. The healthcare connect fund is bridging gap between urban and rural healthcare. There is significant potential for community improvement, economic stimulation,” Commissioner Clyburn shared.
Commissioner Pai replied, “[We] are united in our view that the FCC is going to be proactive in 2013 in establishing regulatory framework that makes the communications industry work for all Americans, in particular minorities and women.”
Although Pai is hopeful going into 2013 about the progress the FCC will make, Honig isn’t as convinced. He in turn asked the former FCC Chair panel,
“Why does it take [the FCC] so long? Is it just civil rights? Is it everything? Is it that there isn’t enough of a budget or people to get things done in an expeditious time? Is it something in the water?”
Honig is specifically concerned about the 71 pending minority ownership proposals, 47 of which address media ownership. Taylor Tate also zoned in on the need for the FCC to move faster and the need for a regulatory framework that works with the ever-changing industry.
“We all recognize with the convergence, that these laws based on silos and old technology is inefficient. It’s essentially a dinosaur,” she said.
The “dinosaur” to which Taylor Tate refers is the outdated Telecommunications Act of 1996. Pai concurred, “One of the things we’ve been frustrated with is we’ve been charged with administering an act that doesn’t fit the times. I hope Congress is aware that this industry changes very quickly.”
Clyburn also pointed to the Sunshine Provision Act as one reason the commission itself moves slower than it is capable of moving. The Sunshine Act was designed to encourage open meetings to increase public understanding of the governmental decision-making process, but in essence means only two Commissioners may meet at a time before it requires a formal public notice.
“There is no continuity of engagement,” Clyburn said of the way they must work. “It is well-meaning legislation for transparency and the like, but the reality is it lends itself to inefficiencies.”
“I hope for a simpler law that will establish basic principles that will give protections to those who need safeguards,” Former Commissioner Wiley said. Wiley went on to explain that allowing the FCC – or the expert body – more authority to act without Congress would also facilitate progress. He also called for “a law that isn’t nearly as complex as the 1996 statute.”
“There are some glimmers of hope,” Clyburn said. “If you will note in the incentive auction notice of proposed rule-making we are seeking comments on whether small business credits are sufficient in providing business opportunities for women and minority owned businesses; and in the post-auction section we are seeking comment on what other proposals could address diversity in programming and small business acquisition in the wireless licensing space.”
Former Chairman Copps suggested an annual report as a way of marking progress. “Mandate an annual report. Each year you can say, ‘this is how many reports the bureau handled, number of new ones filed, these are the cases that go back to 2005… 2001’. The momentum generated from this report might be helpful.”
“I cannot say I’m pleased about the pace of change,” Clyburn concluded. “But we have series of incredible opportunities going forward to advanced all of our engagements.”