Mignon L. Clyburn seemed to conjure more than the usual share of skepticism in August 2009 when she became the first African-American woman to serve on the Federal Communications Commission.
|Mignon L. Clyburn|
Before coming to Washington, she had spent 11 years as a representative on the Public Service Commission in her native South Carolina. Among other things, the job involved regulating telecommunications firms in the state. That led some to wonder whether she would favor traditional telecommunications companies when she was on the FCC.
Others were not sure whether Clyburn, a University of South Carolina graduate who had run a tiny newspaper, had the requisite experience to serve on the FCC, which oversees Internet communications, allocation of the increasingly crowded airwaves, media ownership and broadcasting standards.
Her confirmation came as the FCC was wresting with the momentous issue of Net neutrality, which prevents telecommunications and cable companies from blocking or slowing any legal content or services on their Internet networks. The firms that provide the on- and off-ramps to the Internet wanted no part of it, warning that the Net neutrality rules would amount to the first regulation of the Internet, curb investment, dampen job creation, and possibly raise prices for users, potentially widening the digital divide.
At the time, many people wondered where Clyburn would come down on the issue. Still others whispered that the appointment was a way of bolstering her political career and a favor to her father, Rep. James E. Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives.
But since taking the post, Clyburn, 49, has quelled much of that speculation. She embraced Net neutrality, joining a 3-2 Democratic majority on the commission that endorsed the principle of an open Internet. Clyburn called the rules a means to ensure equal access to “the most significant communications advancement in our lifetimes.”
“Together we must ensure that people of color—and all Americans—can participate as owners, employees, and suppliers on-line,” she said. “That cannot happen, however, if we passively permit a new set of gatekeepers to erect yet another set of barriers to entry.”
Overall, Clyburn has built a reputation as a strong voice for minority and rural communities when it comes to the fast-changing communications landscape.
US Black Engineer & Information Technology magazine recently caught up with her. The discussion follows here:
USBE: What are your top priorities as an FCC commissioner?
Clyburn: One of the things I was happy about when I got to the FCC is that we are working on a broadband plan, which lays out certain principles that I embrace. No. 1: Universally available, affordable, accessible, broadband service to all Americans. That is at the epicenter of what I want to do. Broadband high-speed Internet is a means to address inequities. It can do it affordably if we put the right mechanisms in place. It can do it efficiently. It doesn’t matter where you live, work or play. This is at the core of future opportunities in this country.
USBE: You have talked passionately about the need for keeping wireless access to the Internet affordable. How did the now-dead proposal to merge AT&T and T-Mobile fit into that view?
Clyburn: I have a policy of not speaking about a particular transaction. But I will do it in a broader sense. When someone comes to us with a proposal to merge, it does affect the entire marketplace. The number of players in the market affects the market. People are cutting the cord at home, meaning they are increasingly relying on mobile devices. From my perspective, it is a challenge to me, and this agency, to ensure that these mobile devices are as robust and as affordable to individuals as they can be. That is especially important to African Americans and Hispanics, who disproportionately access the Internet using these devices.
USBE: How does Net neutrality affect affordability?
Clyburn: The reason I was such a proponent for an open Internet is because I recognize the trend where more and more people have to make a choice: I can only afford one communications device. Which will I choose? The one that gives me the most bang for my buck. The one that’s most mobile. The one that gives me the most overall use. So to have this device be as robust as it can be, for it to be as accessible as it can be, as close as possible to a landline device, is important. To ensure that the device you use is able to connect to the full network is also important. For a provider to pick a winner or a loser is not right. If you have a business that might compete with an Internet service provider, it is important for you to know what speed to expect, and that you are able to connect. All of those things truly matter. And as far as prices go, transparency is the key. Transparency, transparency, transparency, so you know what you are paying for. I think over time it won’t make mobile more expensive. Once the rules are set forth, the providers recalibrate and act accordingly. As long as we at the FCC encourage transparency and competition, there will be a downward pressure on prices.
USBE: There is now a mind-blowing array of wireless devices out there, everything from GPS devices to track your pet’s whereabouts to wireless devices that remind you to take your medication. How does this affect your work at the FCC?
Clyburn: You are talking about innovation and investment, and all of these diverse uses create more demand for spectrum. As we all know, spectrum is the real estate that is needed for all of those devices to operate. So when you have these tools, all of these things put an exponential demand on the systems. That means there is heightened need for spectrum. This poses a set of challenges that we all need to address from the governmental side in terms of the need for more spectrum and from an innovation side to ensure that we are doing all we can to ensure we are being efficient and doing all we can to maximize this very important real estate.
USBE: Is the disproportionate use of wireless devices by African Americans and Latinos closing the digital divide?
Clyburn: I think it has been impacted in certain ways. If a disproportionate share of African Americans and Latinos use mobile devices to access the Internet, there is a slight closing of the gap, but there still remains a significant divide. As much as we have been looking at these mobile technologies and trying to make sure they are as robust as possible, there are still differences between mobile and stationary devices. It is not apples to apples. There are still things from an efficiency standpoint where the legacy systems work better. If you are filling out a resume, it is not easy to do that on a small device.
USBE: Many Americans think of the FCC in terms of broadcast regulation. Is that notion outdated given the multitude of television and radio outlets?
Clyburn: My answer, and I don’t hesitate to say this, is no. All of these technologies that we have grown dependent on, even with our teenagers consuming their entertainment differently, most Americans still access their news and entertainment through traditional means such as television and radio. We still are reliant on that. While the six o’clock news has taken a hit, it remains important. There is a reason you still have those offerings: people are watching. From that standpoint, our interaction there remains important. Remember, those broadcasters were gifted with that spectrum, they did not pay for the space on the broadcast spectrum that allows them to operate. So they have a public responsibility that from my perspective will never expire.
USBE: Your background is in newspapers, so how did you end up on the FCC?
Clyburn: I spent 14 years running, and being run by, a weekly newspaper. I had a mentor, the first African American on the Public Service Commission in South Carolina. We were talking one day, and she said, “You’re smart. You care about the community. Why don’t you think about offering yourself to be on the Public Service Commission?” She was about to leave. I thought, I don’t know much about utilities. Again, she said, you’re smart. You’re capable. Compared to how hard you have been working, it would be like a vacation. So we tried back in 1994, but we were less than successful. Around 1997 or 1998, she talked to me again. And my parents joined in the chorus. They said give it another shot. I was a little unsure. Having been unsuccessful and having to drop out of the election—we’re elected by the General Assembly. But they talked me into it. And I was successful and won on the first ballot. I say all of that to say people saw things in me more than I saw in myself. Going from covering people like me to being people like me was something I had not anticipated.
USBE: Why did you want to be on the FCC?
Clyburn: I got a letter right after my confirmation from a gentleman who was the president of the pay phone association in South Carolina congratulating me, despite the fact that we did not always agree. And he said he remembered me saying I always wanted to be on the FCC, although I did not remember saying that. But you have these people you admire, like (former FCC commissioner) William Kennard, who you admire. Foundationally, I always have seen myself as a public servant. I always wanted to be a conduit for those people who don’t even have the resources to dedicate themselves to this space. I have always known how important the regulatory role is. I always thought I had the temperament for the job. I offered myself for service. It is not an unnatural place for me to be. I love people. I love listening. I love being a voice for those persons who don’t get an opportunity. Those rural voices, communities of color, those people who can’t figure out whether I am on the FTC or the FCC—all of those persons matter. I think I am the person who represents their interests.
USBE: You are the first African-American woman to serve on the commission. Is that something you are conscious of day-to-day? Does that fact bring a special responsibility?
Clyburn: It does reaffirm your purpose and mission and responsibility. There is not a day that goes by that I am not conscious of what it means and represents and the added duty that I have. If you embrace and believe what your parents and grandparents told you, especially in communities of color, that you want to positively impact and make the way easier for those to follow, you recognize that responsibility and do what you can to help others get ahead.