WASHINGTON, July 30, 2014 - Speakers at a Minority Media Telecommunications Council conference here on Monday advocated for expanded minority-based involvement with and access to broadband capital.
"Broadband is the 21st Century's civil right and our laws must reflect the digital shift," said Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C, at the MMTC’s twelfth annual telecom policy conference.
Nicol Turner-Lee, Vice President of MMTC, highlighted several issues, including: widening broadband service to minorities in poor and rural communities, expanding minority-based ownership of media and telecom businesses, and convincing the Federal Communications Commission to reform Designated Entity rules.
While the unprecedented "digital disruption and explosion" of media and telecom has born witness to “differentiation” in the industry, 36 million people are still offline, Turner-Lee said. Many of them are African Americans.
"We're seeing increasing involvement by people of color...who are using technology to change their lives," Turner-Lee said. "On the flipside, however, many of us might be 'multi-deviced,' but at the same time, people living in low-income, rural America are older, and are still striving to get online."
Rep. Alan Williams, D-Fla., said that 36 million people offline is too many. “I hear the story over again of the mother who takes her daughter of children to the McDonald’s because they don’t have access,” he said. “They have to grab the Wi-Fi and sit in a car just to do the homework. That’s disappointing and it’s frustrating.”
In the increasingly digital economy, a business in Baltimore doesn't have to serve local markets. It can serve the entire global market, said Catherine Pugh, President-Elect of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. The social benefits of this are enormous, she said, and ought to be present in every community nationwide.
Access to capital isn’t just about internet diversions, but about essential broadband services, speakers said.
"It's one to thing to play the game, but it's another thing to build it and be in the game," Turner-Lee said. "It's about allowing the internet to be a game-changer for our community when it comes to economic stability, telehealth and telemedicine, educational opportunities."
Butterfield added the lack of sufficient diversity within telecom companies is "absolutely deplorable." Only 100 out of the Fortune 500 companies have more than one African American, he said. Two percent of telecom leaders are African American or Latino, Turner Lee said.
The speakers heavily criticized partisanship on the FCC’s Designated-Entity rules, which over the past twenty years have aimed to promote minority-owned wireless spectrum. An MMTC white paper from earlier this year stated the program has been “largely ineffective.”
“Over the course of fifty-six wireless auctions during the past 20 years, the majority of DEs that currently hold wireless licenses are incumbent rural telephone companies, very few DEs are new entrants, and even fewer DEs are MBEs (minority-owned business entity). Without a change in policy and current rules and regulations, the outlook for expanded minority participation remains dismal,” the paper read.
Pugh referred to the DE program as minorities’ “last hope to own wireless spectrum.” She said politicians should stop deprecating the program.
“The designated entity program was created as a vehicle to foster competition and innovation particularly among new entrants in smaller incumbents,” said Butterfield. “Small businesses are the heart of participation in the economy and they represent the communities in which they serve and can drive economic development and foster more economic certainty.”
Pugh encouraged the FCC and MMTC allies to push for reform of DE laws to be more inclusive. Both she and Butterfield also threw in their support for using Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as the proper means to allow for enabling net neutrality and keeping an open internet.