Fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement culminated in the March on Washington and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a new era of civil rights activism and engagement is upon us. On what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 85th birthday were he still alive today, David E. Honig, President and CEO of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council delivered his State of Social Justice in Media, Telecom and Broadband address to a crowded hall of technologists, entrepreneurs, policy makers and civil rights advocates during the organization’s fifth annual Broadband and Social Justice Summit.
Honig’s message was clear, the “digital divide is…the greatest threat to first class citizenship since segregation,” and today, the divide is felt through both lack of access to high-speed infrastructure and insufficient opportunities for minority owned and operated enterprises to participant meaningfully in large-scale spectrum auctions and secondary market transactions.
To Honig, digital redlining is one of the greatest threats to universal broadband adoption and ubiquitous access and use. Across the country, large companies are promoting gigabit speed, fiber optic networks to affluent communities who can easily afford the costs of access. But, while they tout super-fast speeds as catalysts of innovation, people living in low-income communities, many of whom tend to be members of minority populations, are all too often left out of the equation by the practice of digital redlining, a method of determining where to deploy broadband based on the number of residents who can quickly sign-up for service at a specified price point. And for people who can barely afford traditional broadband access, much less a gigabit fiber optic account, the price is often too high, leaving the members of the community without the possibility of experiencing gigabit speed for themselves.
As Honig aptly notes,
[quote]If we’ve learned anything at all about disruptive technology, we should clearly understand that in ten years or less, gigabit broadband will be the key to unlocking applications not yet invented, technologies not yet thought of, wild dreams given life in the garages of today’s geeks who will become tomorrow’s billionaires.[/quote]
His solution is simple: “the time has come for the Federal Communications Commission to ensure that no one is going to be deprived of fast broadband service because of what neighborhood they live in.” As far as Honig is concerned, the Commission must step in to prevent digital redlining, an action well within its authority after the D.C. Circuit granted wide latitude to regulate matters related to broadband deployment.
Beyond digital redlining, which affects some of the most economically vulnerable members of the country, Honig is also looking to the Commission to increase opportunities for minorities and women to increase their participation in the media and telecom sectors as holders and owners of spectrum.
At a time when African Americans and Hispanics over-index in the use of mobile technologies, it is not enough that entrepreneurs in this space be relegated to only developing apps or selling products and services to holders of spectrum. Instead, minority representation on the backend of the spectrum equation should be more reflective of the rich diversity of this nation.
Addressing an audience of over 100 people, Honig rightly pointed out that,
[quote]In the midst of consolidation and spectrum aggregation, with all of the opportunity they bring for wealth creation, the FCC should declare that much greater minority inclusion in these transactions will ultimately drive more competition, promote the delivery of new and innovative services, and help create a more robust economy for all Americans.[/quote]
In support of his call that minorities and women be afforded greater opportunities to purchase spectrum incident to the many auctions and mergers anticipated on the horizon, Honig called on the FCC to:
- “make diversity and inclusion a compelling factor in its determination of whether any transaction before it meets the public interest standard;”
- “adopt strong new rules to strengthen the Designated Entity program, which Congress created in 1993 to promote competition and ownership diversity including minority and women ownership;”
- “consider the state of minority ownership as a factor in evaluating whether a market is truly competitive;” and
- “call in all of the major carriers for a multi-stakeholder mediation that will produce an industry wide compact to bring about large-scale minority spectrum ownership.”
Echoing Honig’s sentiments, Tennessee State Representative and President of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL) Hon. Joe Armstrong, and NBCSL President-Elect Maryland State Senator Catherine Pugh, cited the important role of broadband and secondary market transactions in spurring new opportunities for minority ownership.
Pugh, an advocate for telehealth and telemedicine in Maryland and around the country, emphasized “how many people in our communities are unaware of what they can do with broadband.” She further noted that “we don’t want to just be a part of broadband as users, we also want to be a part of the spectrum auctions, because we need African Americans and other minorities to participate at that level…we need the companies and corporations involved to understand that we do have the expertise, and we have the individuals who have the expertise to be involved in those auctions.”
Armstrong, himself a broadcaster, was particularly moved by Honig’s remarks and gave a personal testimony about the power of minority ownership as a means of promoting social justice and creating new entrepreneurial and cultural opportunities for people of color.
MMTC has a long history of advocating for greater diversity and inclusion in the technology and telecommunications sectors, and they’re sure to pursue first class digital citizenship among its top priorities in 2014 and beyond. “We still have to close the digital divide,” Honig said. “We have to end broadband redlining. We have to preserve and grow vast new entrepreneurial and career opportunities in traditional and new media and in telecommunications.”