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Mignon Clyburn may as well get used to her seat. The new acting FCC chairwoman could be in that post for weeks or months to come. In any event, she does not appear to be content with merely sitting still. Her first public meeting featured five items, including one freeing up more spectrum for wireless broadband and a review of the incentive auction band plan process the FCC is wrestling with.
Why This Matters
Clyburn is the first woman to head the agency and has already gotten points from insiders for the way she listens to and considers opposing viewpoints. At a Hill hearing on FCC process reform, one industry exec said that in his conversation with Clyburn, she had said her focus was on "getting it right."
It's a challenge, but in her first extensive interview since taking the post two months ago, Clyburn talked with B&C/Multichannel News Washington bureau chief John Eggerton about how she plans to do exactly that during her indeterminate stay at the top. An edited transcript follows.
In a note to staff when you took over, you said that your job was to "build on forward momentum, give the next teammate a running start." Almost two months in, how have you done that so far?
While preparing for my transition, I knew that my time as acting chairwoman could be relatively short and that my staff and I would have to be prudent in terms of our focus, and to keep the agency moving forward.
Chairman [Julius] Genachowski had set in motion a clear timeline for the 2014 incentive auction, and we have been working hard to stay on track and hit all the benchmarks needed to keep the auction process on schedule. We approved a number of significant measures at the June Open Commission meeting, including a report and order to enable the use of 10 MHz of spectrum for mobile broadband use. The commission also approved a declaratory ruling that affirmed the FCC's commitment to protecting the privacy of wireless consumers by updating the FCC's customer proprietary network information-or CPNI-policies.
We are also pressing ahead with proposals for modernizing the E-rate program in order to ensure our nation's schools and libraries have the robust broadband connectivity they need. Furthermore, the implementation of the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act is of great importance to me, and this month we have taken yet another step forward toward fully enacting its provisions. These actions and all of the work we continue to do will hopefully enable Tom Wheeler to enter the chairman's office with an ability to hit the ground running and kick off his agenda with great forward momentum.
This interview will publish after the July 19 meeting, where the latest video competition report is being released. How do you see the state of video competition? Is the market competitive?
It's important to note that the Commission's 15th Video Competition Report does not draw conclusions but rather provides a comprehensive compilation of information and data that measures progress toward the goals of boosting competition and diversity in the market for delivering video programming to consumers. I'm really encouraged by the trends we've found since the last report, particularly the continued deployment of digital technology; the increased choices the video industry is providing to meet consumers' ongoing demand for access to video programming anywhere and anytime; the increased number of households with access to at least four multichannel video distribution systems, as telephone companies extend their video 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.
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.
Does the FCC need to collect more input on the band plan proposals, or is it time to come up with a final plan and vote on it?
The FCC's Incentive Auction Task Force, led by Gary Epstein, continues to review carefully a range of band plan options and to engage in extensive deliberations with all stakeholders to devise a wireless band plan that meets the multiple public interest objectives described in the Commission's Public Notice. The team is making good progress and will continue to engage with stakeholders on the technical framework that will underpin the new spectrum for mobile broadband. This input will be critical to our efforts to craft an effective and successful incentive auction in 2014, and free up additional spectrum for wireless broadband.
I encourage all stakeholders to engage constructively with the FCC in this important proceeding, as we work toward finalizing rules for the incentive auction that will help ensure robust competition and consumer benefits are maintained in the wireless marketplace.
What more should the FCC do to gauge the impact of loosening cross-ownership rules on diversity before it proceeds to vote, or was the Minority Media & Telecommunications Council diversity study sufficient?
The Commission's quadrennial review of its broadcast ownership rules, which is mandated by Congress, is an extensive process.
The current proceeding began with a series of six workshops, after which the Commission released a notice of inquiry. Following that notice, a range of industry representatives, public interest groups and members of the public filed a significant number of comments in response. In addition, to provide data on the impact of market structure on the Commission's policy goals of competition, localism and diversity, we commissioned 11 economic studies, conducted by outside researchers and Commission staff, which were peer reviewed and then released to the public. We then issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking comment on the proposed ownership rules, which included the 11 economic studies. Thousands of comments have been received in response, and our staff has carefully reviewed and considered the record in this proceeding.
The most recent study, submitted by the Minority Media and Telecom Council [MMTC], has contributed further data for us to consider in this proceeding. Earlier this summer, the Commission issued a Public Notice seeking input on the MMTC study, and the period for submitting comments expires in early August. We intend to carefully review the MMTC study, as well as any comments submitted in response to the public notice. Our efforts are ongoing as we continue to gather information and move forward with our review.
How is sequestration affecting the commission?
We are living through challenging budgetary times.
The Commission already has a lean budget, and our activities are completely fee-funded by our licensees. Nonetheless, sequestration requires a 5% cut, or a significant $17 million dollars, from the FCC's regular budget, which was set at $339 million by a Continuing Resolution for fiscal year â€˜12. This is also occurring at a time when staff levels are lower than they have been in nearly 30 years. I am, however, committed to taking every reasonable measure possible to minimize the risk of furloughing our dedicated staff.
We are working hard to balance the budget cuts required by sequestration with the need to ensure that all our licensees, consumers and stakeholders continue to receive the highest levels of service from the Commission during this time.
You just began your second term in February. Do you plan to continue as commissioner after Tom Wheeler is seated, or do you have other aspirations?
I am totally committed and focused on running the FCC and moving it forward to the best of my ability. The Commission has many important proceedings pending before it, not the least of which is establishing the rules for the forthcoming incentive auction next year. I feel privileged to serve as a public servant in an agency with such important responsibilities and am working every day to help unleash more spectrum to market, extend the benefits of high-speed Internet to all Americans, empower consumers and promote competition. I look forward to welcoming and working with Tom Wheeler at the Commission following his Senate confirmation, and continuing my commitment to public service.
Speaking of aspiration, tell us what it means to be the first woman chair?
I was truly honored that President Obama appointed me as acting chairwoman of the FCC, and the first woman to run this great agency.
It's a tremendous and humbling honor, and I am focused on continuing to drive the agency and its important work forward. In recent years, women have made significant strides in education, the economy, government and the communications industry. As acting 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 often think of her in those so-called "quiet moments" and continue to be inspired by her.
You pointed out in your statement that the FCC approved the Softbank/Sprint/Clearwire deal only two weeks after the parties revised it. How important is it for the FCC to move expeditiously on merger reviews, appeals and other actions and are you doing anything to speed the process?
I believe that the expeditious handling of the Softbank/Sprint transaction demonstrates a clear commitment to ensuring a timely, streamlined process.
The FCC has approved 95 percent of transaction applications within the 180-day informal timeline, and we will continue to prioritize these types of applications going forward. Promoting competitive market structures is an important policy priority for me. The Commission found that the proposed Softbank/Sprint/Clearwire transactions would serve the public interest, and that the increased investment in Sprint's and Clearwire's networks is likely to accelerate deployment of mobile broadband services and enhance competition in the mobile marketplace, promoting customer choice, innovation and lower prices.