Mignon Clyburn

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn

This week, the Federal Communications Commission will hold a public meeting. The commissioners will consider two pressing concerns: whether to change the way the Internet is regulated as a means of promoting net neutrality, and whether federal regulators should pre-empt state laws currently blocking the implementation of community-based broadband services. Both are issues championed by the White House. Both are divisive issues – encompassing matters such as the digital divide, competition in broadband services, balancing universal service principles against the need for innovation, etc. – that will garner much debate. In a wide-ranging interview with the AFRO, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn – daughter of U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.; former member of South Carolina’s Public Service Commission, where she served for 11 years, and former publisher of a Black weekly newspaper – shared her thoughts on these and other matters. This is an excerpt of that interview.

AFRO: What is the role of the FCC?

Mignon Clyburn: “The FCC is responsible for ensuring that all Americans – no matter their income, no matter their background, no matter where they live – are connected to modern-day communications infrastructure. That has evolved over the years since our establishment in 1934. Way back then it was just about getting Americans connected to basic phone service. And what that meant – although we may not have called it that back then – was a universal service obligation. It has evolved over the years; we’ve gotten things more formalized. But the basic premise and the reason for its (FCC’s) establishment remains the same.”

AFRO: How important is that role in the world we live in today, given the importance of telecommunications to how we live our daily lives?

MC: “I think it is more important than ever before . . . It is important for Americans to be connected to the broadband information age, but the people who need it the most are often the most economically vulnerable. They live in areas where the infrastructure is not robust enough to support what they need. If we can think about health care outcomes, or the education challenges that we have, or the issues we have with being more informed in our communities – we call it civic engagement – who can benefit most? The most vulnerable in our communities are in a position to benefit the most. But if they don’t have modern-day-enabled infrastructure, they will continually be left behind or not have access to the information and services they need . . . So it is vitally important that our universal service obligations are realized. And we need to double down as regulators to make sure we’re doing all we can to ensure that all persons are connected.”

AFRO: Talk about broadband service and how it has impacted the FCC’s work . . . it certainly seems like it has complicated it.

MC: “It has definitely made things more interesting because has gone beyond just a speech-enabled structure . . . You’re absolutely right that our policies have to continually keep in line and in sync with the way in which we’re evolving and maturing on the communications plane. So it does make this a more interesting time.”

AFRO: As technology becomes more advanced, we see that certainly your work has become more complicated, but we also see that the divide between those who have that technology and those who don’t has grown. Can you talk about how important or central this issue has been to the FCC’s work?

MC: One of the things that you would hear us being fixated about is the closing of . . . the digital divide . . . which I have said is about to become a digital canyon. What we’re attempting to do is encourage partnerships and encourage policy in terms of reforming our universal service framework that says if you get money from the FCC as a complement to provide service to those areas that are more difficult to serve, you cannot get this money for a voice-only framework, but you would have to put in the ground, by a certain time period, broadband-enabled infrastructure.

AFRO: How do you respond to media justice advocates concerns about so-called “digital redlining” or discriminatory deployment of broadband infrastructure and services?

MC: It is important for us to challenge those in the industry to not come to a conclusion about certain classes of customers. They are 90 percent wrong about ability and their capacity and interest to sign on and to want the same types of services that everyone else in this nation wants . . .

If somebody believes that is occurring, you have to proactively come to the FCC and say here’s the problem; file a complaint. If the evidence is there, we can maybe open up levels of inquiry. But I have to say if it is happening, and if it is a company-centered problem, that’s what makes it a little funny for us because we in essence cannot dictate to a company where to build. And that’s why it is incumbent upon all of us who care about these issues to be really vigilant about where realistically my jurisdiction as a communications commissioner ends and where your obligation begins. That’s the only way, if such problems exist, to address them . . .

AFRO: How does the FCC balance universal access against market principles and the need to ensure that the market is free enough to allow people to innovate and create?

MC: That’s an excellent question. We are a regulatory backstop we are a market backstop . . . We’re here to encourage investment and innovation in places where companies would not organically go and invest . . . We’re try to bridge the economic gap between where companies would go because they could arguably see their return on investment and where they wouldn’t go, and we would give incentives to companies that go places where we know the benefits would be realized . . .

That is our ongoing responsibility: to ensure that the market protects the most of these and the least of these; to ensure that all citizens benefit. The benefits may be packaged differently . . . I’m not an advocate of identical because I would want my service to be tailor-made to take my every need into consideration, but that does not mean sub-standard service. So there’s this constant push-pull.

AFRO: What are your thoughts on the community broadband debate?

MC: That does not get as much attention because everyone is fixated on the open Internet debate. But, I’ve been talking about this before it was cool and I’m happy that others have now elevated the conversation to address how do we allow communities to, basically, better serve themselves; how do we give cities and municipalities the ability to invest – and partner with those who are willing to invest – in themselves? This is important to me because it is a recognition of local communities that may not have competition in their areas, and competition is important, options are important no matter what your income level, no matter where you live.

. . . There are too many places, particularly minority towns, that don’t have the infrastructure needed to attract investment, to ensure their real estate is valued nationally. It used to be –and it still is – roads and water and that kind of infrastructure, but increasingly, for those communities to get an edge or to grow into what they’re organically destined to be they’re going to need a technology infrastructure that is broadband-enabled. That is why it’s so important for us to maintain focus on those hamlets and inner cities with extreme density to make sure that all of have all the tools they need to be successful.

AFRO: A major problem surrounding this community broadband issue seems to be state legislation blocking its implementation.

MC: There are 22 states that have hurdles that are so high that these towns that I am speaking about don’t have the ability to plant the seed for the infrastructure they need to realize all these objectives we’ve outlined . . .

I am the product of a state (South Carolina) that was one of the first to pass this type of legislation. I am also the product of a state that has extreme divides that it is still struggling to come to terms with. The state just lost a case about being satisfied with providing minimally adequate education to its citizens. Really? We’re still fighting that? . . . We’ve been fighting this battle for decades. And I bring this up on the education side because it is the same mind set . I’m not satisfied with communities – no matter who they are or how much money they have or the level of proficiency they have – only minimally adequate anything. So that’s what motivates me.

AFRO: What can the FCC do in this situation because I know that America is founded on the idea that states have a certain amount of independence? So what can the FCC do or is this something that needs to come from the people through their votes?

MC: Yes and yes on that. The notices we’re going to circulate will talk what our authority and scope is. These are the types of questions that will be circulated and there’s going to be some tension that will once again come to the surface as it relates to where federal authority begins or ends or where the obligation is. You’re going to hear the states’ rights argument, but of course there is the federal obligation to ensure that our national priorities are realized . . . In an ideal country local, federal and state entities would work together to ensure that if there are deficiencies . . . nobody is left behind.

AFRO: One of the recently proposed changes to the rules was to redefine broadband as a public utility. Some advocates welcome the proposal as one that not only protects the open Internet but also addresses issues such as redlining. But we have others – people who have been media justice advocates for years – who say this is a bad idea, that it would stifle innovation and industry, thus reducing the number of jobs, and that it would also undercut their efforts to close the digital divide. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

MC: A reporter asked me that question last week so I will tell you what I told him: I’m not going to get into the classification debate, I will just say to you what is obvious – that broadband is a necessity . . .  You cannot function in today’s society without being connected. So it is incumbent upon regulators and companies to pick up the baton and the charge; it is incumbent upon community leaders and developers to have this as part of your conversation and part of your portfolio . . . how to address the deficiencies and divides to ensure that the disadvantaged and disenfranchised consumer is able to sign on.