Nationally, people of color own just 3 percent of full-power television stations and 8 percent of radio stations despite making up about 40 percent of the total population. This inequality, activists told Wheeler, leads to the misrepresentation of minority communities and has left people of color without a voice in the dominant media. As Oakland Youth Poet Laureate Obasi Davis pointed out to Wheeler and the audience, “On the news/ Only two black men exist/ The athlete and the criminal/ Not always separated.” (Obasi read from his poem, “The skin the sun gave me.”)
Wheeler’s FCC must soon preside over major spectrum auctions, and media reformers are hoping the new chairman will do his best to preserve competition among major telecomm companies to protect consumers. At the town hall, activists asked Wheeler to crack down on television firms that have used “Lifeline program that provides free phone service to low-income folks and to ensure that everyone stays connected to phone lines as the network transitions from analog to digital under his watch.
Wheeler’s FCC also will oversee the expansion of broadband, and advocates pushed him to see the expansion as an opportunity to fight inequality. “Affordable, universal and open broadband internet access is integral to achieving equality in the United States,” said Jessica Gonzalez, executive vice president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. “This is particularly important for people of color, who have not only faced media misrepresentation and discrimination from economic opportunities but also lag behind in broadband adoption.”
Nearly 26 percent of Latino Americans, for example, live in poverty, compared with 15.9 percent of all Americans, but greater access to broadband could help change that, according to the NHMC. Only 53 percent of all Latinos have broadband at home, and many rely on their mobile phones as their sole means to the access the internet. Meanwhile, more than 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies, including huge employers such as Wal-Mart, accept job applications only online. In the next decade, 80 percent of jobs will require some digital literacy skills.
Richard Abisla, technology manager at the Mission Economic Development Agency in San Francisco, knows first-hand how internet access can change lives. The agency’s colorful office in the heart of the city’s Mission district hosts a small business incubator and classrooms with rows of computers where clients, mostly low-income Latino residents, can build basic computer skills, learn how to manage finances and navigate the internet. Working in partnership with the Department of Education, Abisla’s nonprofit is working toward the ambitious goal of ensuring that every family with children that attend school in the Mission has a computer and internet access at home.
“You don’t want your kid doing homework on this thing,” Abisla told Truthout has he grabbed an iPhone from his pocket. That, however, is the case for many children in the neighborhood. Abisla said that internet access equals economic opportunity, and when local economies grow, it’s good for everyone in the neighborhood. “Ultimately, I would want technology access to be woven into all federal poverty alleviation programs,” he said. “After that, I would want federal regulation to keep prices down.”
That’s exactly what Abisla told Wheeler at the town hall. He said the typical family that visits his agency has two children and $28,000 of annual income, making the cost of internet service – about $25 to $70 a month – prohibitively expensive for those who need it most to start climbing up the economic ladder.
Wheeler sat quietly through the testimony, jotting down notes and names. When it was his turn to speak, Wheeler trod with the care of a fresh bureaucrat who has yet to decide exactly how he will tackle the issues piling up on his desk. Wheeler reminded the audience of the progress the FCC has made already, including scrapping a proposal to ease cross-ownership restrictions that prevent rampant consolidation. He declared his support for the Lifeline program and applauded the interim Chair Mignon Clyburn for capping prison phone rates despite legal challenges from prison phone companies. But Wheeler also reminded the audience that the FCC is not the all-powerful regulatory agency that many progressive wish it could be. “I want to sit here and say it’s all solved, but I can’t do that. And you wouldn’t believe me if I did,” Wheeler said.
Despite the looming court decision on net neutrality, Wheeler did not address the issue by name, although it was certainly on everyone’s mind. Voices for internet Freedom, a coalition of the groups that organized the town hall, issued a statement this week reminding consumers and the FCC that the open internet rules struck down this week stand for the kind democratic values that advocates in Oakland promote:
In a digital age, Open internet rules protect dissenting voices. Communities of color, and other groups pushed to the margins of debate, have a long history of creating their own media to express dissent in the struggle for rights and opportunity. Without an Open internet, these constituencies are denied a vital platform to express opinions and shape debates on critical issues that affect their lives.
Wheeler did, however, give his audience a hint at how he may approach net neutrality in an age where activists say that big internet service providers would jump at the chance to manipulate the workings of the web in order to maximize profit and crush dissent. “I will turn around to these companies and say, if you want incentives to grow these networks, then your have to uphold the compact,” Wheeler said. “Why is anyone going to subscribe to your service if there is … preferential treatment for someone else?”
The appeals court struck down the FCC’s net neutrality rules because the FCC had failed to designate broadband service as a “common carrier” provider like landline telephone service. The court did, however, uphold the FCC’s ability to make “rules governing broadband providers’ treatment of internet traffic. After the ruling, Wheeler said that the FCC would consider all options, including appeal, to ensure that the internet remains a free and open platform. But it would be tough for Wheeler to win in court, and veteran GOP commissioners are weary of the legal battles over net neutrality and want Congress to act instead. It remains unclear whether Wheeler would push to reclassify broadband and reinstate net neutrality rules or, as he suggested in Oakland, go after individual internet service providers if they start making anticompetitive moves that hurt consumers. But Wheeler is now three months into his term as chairman. His true policy aims must soon crystalize, and the grassroots voices of Oakland are hoping to be heard when they do.