01/23/2013 09:52 am ET Updated Mar 25, 2013

The State of Broadband and Social Justice: A Dream Deferred

The modern era of civil rights in the media began in 1951, two years after I was born. It was in that year that the NAACP asked the FCC to hold a hearing on Amos and Andy. In that same year, Langston Hughes wrote these words:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore - and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over - like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

The State of Broadband and Social Justice in 2013 can be described in those same three words: "A Dream Deferred."

The dream is as vivid, as desirable, as tangible as ever: a nation where all Americans can realize their full potential by putting to use all of their entrepreneurial and managerial skills, and their inherent creativity and innovation.

But the FCC defers that dream year after year after year after year. This is not an accident. Through its own research, the Commission has documented the scarcity of minority and women entrepreneurs and the plight of minority and women consumers.

Nonetheless, the Commission has deprioritized dozens of pending proposals to advance minority and women's ownership of media and telecom facilities, equal opportunity in employment and entrepreneurship, and media and telecom service to the underserved - in other words, most of the issues before the FCC that would advance traditional civil rights.

Delay has profound consequences.

Think about the 1954 Brown v. Board decision, when the Court declared that segregated schools were inherently unequal. Then a year later in the second Brown decision, the Court walked back and declared that desegregation need only occur "with all deliberate speed."

We all know how that worked out. "All deliberate speed" turned out to be a school bus going zero miles per hour. So in 1968 the Supreme Court ran out of patience and, in Green v. New Kent County Board of Education held that "all deliberate speed" did not mean "no speed."

Now think about a child who, in 1955, was entering kindergarten. Thirteen years later, in 1968, that child had had his only childhood, his only chance at a good education, stolen by his school board's failure to desegregate and the courts' refusal to intervene.

And delay at the FCC has consequences, too. At our 2013 Broadband and Social Justice Summit Awards Reception, we honored Martha Wright-Reed and the many organizations and individuals who finally, after ten years of advocacy, persuaded the FCC to seek public comment on whether it's reasonable to charge as much as $17 a minute to call a loved one who's in prison.

While we're happy that the FCC has finally acted on the Wright Petition, you will not hear me say "better late than never." The truth is that late is not much better than never. During those 10 years, how many people in prison lost their relationships with friends, spouses, and children, or lost their minds and became recidivists?

Most of us couldn't last a week without a phone call from home. That breaks people. And for nearly half a generation, hundreds of thousands of young people in prison were broken while the Wright Petition lingered without an answer from the FCC.

Unfortunately, the Commission's 10-year delay on prison payphones wasn't an aberration. For another horrible example, consider this: How many people in hurricane zones won't receive life-saving information during a hurricane because, for going on eight years, the Commission still hasn't acted on our 2005 "Katrina Petition" to require multilingual broadcasting in emergencies?

Why is that important? Because at least one-tenth of us are unable to understand emergency information in English. After Hurricane Katrina, there was no wireline communication in much of New Orleans. There was no wireless communication. There was no Spanish-language print media. And the only Spanish-language radio station in New Orleans had been knocked off the air for eight days. The owner of that station told me that for New Orleans' 100,000 Hispanics, "it was like mass communications in 15th century Madrid -- just word of mouth."

People couldn't find their children because of that. Some people died because of that.

What about FCC EEO enforcement, of which there is virtually none anymore? How many people have trained for a career in broadcasting, but can't get a job because the FCC has taken ten years and running without deciding the simple matter of EEO data transparency and, attendant to that, has ceased any meaningful EEO enforcement of any kind?

And what about minority media and telecom ownership? The FCC has pending before it 71 specific minority ownership proposals, 47 of which address media ownership. We don't just complain about how bad things are; we propose solutions -- lots of them.

Fifty-seven national organizations have now endorsed all of the media ownership proposals. Daily newspaper publishers have endorsed seventeen of them, and the National Association of Broadcasters has endorsed twelve of them.

Several of the proposals have been pending for over 10 years, and one huge one - media incubators -- has actually been pending for 23 years in seven consecutive dockets. Most of the proposals have been endorsed unanimously by the FCC's own federal Advisory Committee on Diversity. Yet the Commission has yet to find even one of the 71 proposals worthy of adoption.

So why, I would like to know, does it always take the FCC so long just to rule on issues as fundamental as prison payphones, multilingual emergency broadcasting, equal employment opportunity, and minority media and telecom ownership? Is this normal in government, or is it just the FCC that's broken? To shed some light on that, let's perform a thought experiment.

What if it took the health department 10 years to arrange for a new round of universal childhood immunizations from contagious diseases? Wouldn't a lot of parents be worried about what germs their children would bring home?

What if it took the FDA 10 years to approve a new anti-cancer drug? How many people would have died while the FDA did nothing?

What if it took the Department of the Treasury 10 years to rule on your claim for overpaid taxes?

Then why is it that this highly sophisticated and expert agency, the FCC, which oversees the most influential industries in the world, the industries that shape our democracy, that create and socialize our culture, that provide most of us with most of our real educations, that constitute 1/6 of our economy -- how does this agency get away with failing, for years, to resolve most of the important issues that relate to diversity and civil rights?

Now because I want to be fair -- I said "most of the important issues" not "all" of them. The Commission does deserve a great deal of credit for its rapid and decisive actions on universal access to broadband and broadband adoption, and for giving us a truly outstanding National Broadband Plan.

But on the issues of traditional civil rights -- minority entrepreneurship, EEO, emergency services for multilingual populations, phone rates for the families of people who are incarcerated, it takes forever.

Often I'm asked "why did you have to give them 71 proposals? The FCC is busy. And yes, you've prioritized the proposals, and you've waded through them with the staff. But maybe you could just settle for the top three, the lowest hanging fruit that would be easiest to pass."

And that advice is well intentioned. But I always cringe when I hear it because it overlooks the fact that in no other area of telecom policy except civil rights does anyone ever suggest that policymaking ought to be limited to a quota of three ideas.

Remember the Commission's 2010 Report and Order on emergency communications? The Commission went on and on about how proud it was that it had approved 140 new proposals on the subject. And no one said, "Gee, they should've just picked three." By the way, multilingual emergency broadcasting didn't even make the top 140.

And how peculiar would the Commission have sounded if, last year, it had issued an order that said "Today we resolve our longstanding intercarrier comp proceeding by picking three pieces of low hanging fruit. Now we can call it a day and move on to something less vexatious."

So why did we put forth 71 minority ownership proposals? Because achieving diversity is as complex, and as multi-layered, as replacing the PSTN with an all-IP network. As reining in the High Cost Fund. As net neutrality. As special access.

And I can't say this often enough: diversity and inclusion are every bit as central to media and telecom policy as are privacy and security. And interoperability. And competition. Localism. Innovation. Affordability. And why is that?

Because it makes no economic sense to hold back, and not fully utilize, the inherent, God-given creative, entrepreneurial, managerial, and technical abilities of tens of millions of Americans.

Diversity and inclusion also help bring about universal connectedness, which is a public good of immense value. It means that everyone can be reached in times of national or personal emergency, of national or personal celebration. Having everyone on the network follows the path of logic and moral righteousness that Dr. King set out for us in 1964 when he declared that "we must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools."

And more than that, universal first class digital citizenship enables us to maintain that most essential premise of democracy -- full and well-informed participation by everyone. A mandate for diversity means that Americans would learn about each other through our genuine voices -- not as stereotypes and caricatures. As Commissioner Adelstein has amplified, a mandate for diversity means that young people would learn to use telecommunications for education, for jobs, for healthcare, for community involvement, for providing information, for saving energy costs through the e-grid, and for health care.

I've said a lot that's critical of the FCC, and therefore it might surprise you to know that I actually love the Federal Communications Commission. Since 1970 I've built my life around it. It is, after all, the nation's keeper of democracy.

We have in MMTC an organization populated with a great many FCC veterans- - Erwin Krasnow, Frank Montero, Deborah Lathen, Deborah Taylor Tate, Ari Fitzgerald, Henry Solomon, Julia Johnson -- and we're all deeply frustrated by the FCC's feet of clay. Yet all of us recognize that a 23-year delay on an issue as important as incubation didn't begin with the current administration. That kind of delay by a succession of eight FCC chairmen is endemic to the agency as an institution.

Some would say the FCC is broken. It is, at least, afflicted with a chronic illness.

On January 16th, we held the inaugural meeting of the New Telecom and Internet Policy Taskforce, co-chaired by former Congressmen Ed Towns and Cliff Stearns. One of the highest priorities of the Taskforce will be figuring out -- with love -- how the FCC can cure its illness.

There is no better time than now to cure it. Have we ever had an FCC whose members are more inherently receptive to civil rights?

The Chairman, in an earlier life, handled civil rights cases.

Commissioner McDowell was the prime mover in getting the advertising nondiscrimination rule across the finish line.

Commissioner Clyburn had a long career as the crusading publisher of an African-American newspaper in Charleston, South Carolina.

Commissioner Rosenworcel worked with Mike Copps at the FCC and helped oversee civil rights legislation in the Senate.

And the first thing Commissioner Pai did upon joining the Commission was to go to the NABOB Conference and deliver a stemwinder of a keynote address saying that it's time to put xenophobia aside and put an end to our crazy restrictions on access to overseas capital in broadcasting.

People, from the perspective of civil rights, the FCC doesn't get better than this. Bipartisanship to advance diversity is within our grasp.

And in that spirit I want to close by quoting a wonderful editorial that Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate published two weeks ago in MMTC's Broadband and Social Justice weblog. Her topic was media ownership, but she also raised the issue of simple due process, and she got there by quoting another of our heroes, about whom Commissioner Tate said:

My former colleague Commissioner Mike Copps and I probably don't agree about much regarding media ownership, but we do agree on one thing that he suggested over 5 years ago. The FCC should commit to review and vote on some of those 71 long-pending minority ownership proposals every month. Up or down. Just please do something in 2013 to ensure that women and minorities can participate fully in America's broadcasting industry.