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At the FCC with Mignon Clyburn

IN HER OWN WORDS: Chairwoman, Mignon Clyburn, talks about her role and legacy as first woman to lead the FCC

Mignon L. Clyburn is currently serving as Acting Chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission, following her appointment by President Barack Obama on May 20, 2013. As Commissioner, she is serving a second term as a Democrat on the Commission, for which she was sworn in on February 19, 2013, following her re-nomination by the President and confirmation by the United States Senate.

Mignon Clyburn

What has the Commission been doing well as it relates to diversity?

Competition, consumer choice, media diversity and a plurality of voices are all priorities to me and help guide our daily actions at the Commission. The FCC has been and continues to be fully engaged – through various initiatives and programs – in addressing diversity issues on multiple fronts. For example, the FCC has examined the impact on diversity of various transactions under its review and has helped develop initiatives to ensure that such transactions did not harm diversity and independent programming in the media marketplace. More broadly, since I arrived at the FCC, our primary focus has been maximizing the benefits of high-speed Internet for all Americans, and I emphasize all. As Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and others have said, closing the digital divide is one of the key civil rights issues of the 21st century. According to an Urban League study, the broadband adoption gap between whites and African-American was cut in half from 2009 to 2010. While I’m pleased by this progress, African-Americans and other minority groups are still disproportionately on the wrong side of the digital divide, being left behind by the broadband revolution. Broadband is no longer a luxury; it is a basic necessity. That’s why the FCC was proud to partner with the Urban League in kick-starting Connect2Compete, the most comprehensive public-private partnership ever to close the broadband adoption gap. Participating cable companies offer qualifying families monthly Internet access subscription services for a low price (e.g., $9.95/month) for a period of up to two years.These families can also purchase refurbished computers for $150, and gain free online digital literacy training. However, we recognize that more work is to be done if we are to continue to look for ways to break down barriers to entry and provide inroads for all people to strive in the telecommunications and technology marketplace.

What do you feel is your most significant accomplishment to date?

We have adopted a number of significant measures during my time as Chairwoman, but I think the most significant one for me has been reforming inmate calling services. For too long, family and friends of inmates had been calling on the FCC to ease the burden of exorbitant prison phone calling rates. Thousands of inmates and their families proclaimed that the cost of calls can be prohibitively high – up to $17 for a 15 minute call in some cases – forcing them to choose between communicating with their loved ones and paying for basic necessities. There are 2.7 million children with at least one parent in prison, and studies have shown that having meaningful contact beyond prison walls can make a real difference in maintaining community ties, promoting rehabilitation, and reducing recidivism. Thus, we built a robust public record and acted, while recognizing the unique security needs of correctional facilities. Our new rules require inmate calling rates to be cost-based, through a system of rate caps and safe harbors, fulfilling our obligation to ensure, just, reasonable and fair phone rates for all Americans, including the millions with loved ones in prison. It was the right thing to do.

How do you intend to continue taking a lead on diversity issues?

In the short term, one of the most effective ways we are supporting the empowerment of minority voices in the media, is through the Commission’s new Low Power FM (LPFM) rules, which represent the largest expansion of community radio in U.S. history. Thanks to these new rules, space previously held by larger national entities in major urban markets will be freed up for LPFM stations and for use by broadcasters in local communities. Starting this October, local groups across the country will have a unique opportunity to apply for a license to launch and operate low-power stations. This will add diverse new voices to the airwaves, so we have been encouraging applicants to use the full resources and tools available from the Commission, such as our LPFM Channel Finder, to assist in their applications. I am hoping that local communities across the country will galvanize in the next few months to take advantage of this unique opportunity.

What do you think is the biggest challenge the cable and telecommunications industry is facing right now when it comes to diversity?

Two significant challenges come to mind. The first is access to capital, which is often critical for participation in our nation’s cable and telecommunications industries, and the second is providing so called “second tier” opportunities for diverse groups, such as subcontracting. The FCC’s Office of Communications Business Opportunities, or “OCBO,” has been and continues to address the important issue of access to capital resources and will continue holding conferences, workshops and seminars on this topic, as well as angel investing. Such programs can help to connect entrepreneurs with financial experts who make daily decisions about capital infusions. OCBO has also been pioneering an effort to develop broadband strategies for small, local and minority-owned radio, so that these broadcast owners can modernize their business models and create additional streams of income. Additionally, the office hosts roundtable discussions with broadcasters and new media entrepreneurs to develop new media and digital strategies for small and minority-owned radio entities.

How do you see the state of video competition? Is the market competitive?

I’m encouraged by some recent industry trends, particularly, the continued deployment of digital technology; the increased choices the video industry is providing to meet consumers’ ongoing demand for programming anywhere and anytime; the increased number of households with access to at least four multichannel video distribution systems; and the increased number of online video providers who are entering the market, as well as developing original content. This is all good news for consumers and market diversity. I remain concerned, however, that not all consumers across the country have benefited from the entry of additional video providers and richer programming choices. This is especially the case in smaller and rural communities, where consumers’ choices for video providers are more limited and access to high-speed Internet service may be lacking.

In your opinion, how has the industry changed over last 30 years, when it comes to diversity?

I have spoken often of the tax certification program, which allowed companies to defer capital gains taxation on the sale of media properties to minority owners. Since its repeal in 1995, we have seen a clear reduction in the number of diverse stakeholders in the area of legacy broadcasting. At the same time, we have also seen the emergence of new technological platforms such as the Internet, and more recently the mobile app marketplace which have truly opened the door to many new entrants, including minorities because the capital requirements are not as high.

In honor of the Foundation’s 30th anniversary fundraising dinner, we would like you to pick a number from 1-30 and tell us what that number signifies in terms of your career or any diversity-related issues.

I’ll go with the number one, signifying the fact that President Obama made me the first woman to run the FCC when he appointed me as Interim Chairwoman. It’s a tremendous and humbling honor to be Interim Chairwoman, and I am focused on continuing to manage the agency and further its important work. In recent years, women have made significant strides in education, the economy, government, and the communications industry. As Interim Chairwoman, I feel that one more crack has been made in the glass ceiling. Progress is being made, but there is so much more work to do, particularly in terms of encouraging young women to enter the communications and technology sectors. In terms of my aspiration and inspiration, I often reflect on my grandmother, who was a guiding light to me growing up. Even though she was unable to move beyond sixth grade because of the laws of the land in South Carolina at the time she was in school, she always encouraged her children and grandchildren to push themselves hard and to do our very best. And I continue to be inspired by her.