by Benjamin L. Hooks
(NNPA)—The nation’s top officials at the Federal Communications Commission came to Memphis to learn about the state of our high-speed Internet service and how it affects our city. These officials wanted to find out whether high-speed services are being deployed in a way that allows all Americans to benefit.
This meeting brought back important memories for me. For nearly five years in the 1970s, I served as one of five FCC commissioners. While there was no Internet back then, the issues my colleagues and I confronted were every bit as important. We looked at the lack of minority ownership of television and radio stations and investigated minority employment in broadcasting. There were 9,000 radio stations, only 13 owned by African-Americans, and 900 television stations, none owned by African-Americans.
Perhaps more important, we spoke out about the negative image of African-Americans in the media. I was not alone in this. Great African-American leaders like Dr. James Cheek, the president of Howard University, joined me in this effort.
“We need to build a real-world laboratory,” he would say, speaking about his university, adding, “a place where students learn in the classroom and then get practical experience in commercial media vehicles.”Only with great effort did we create change. With the cooperation of FCC commissioners, Dr. Cheek founded WHMM, at the time the nation’s only Black-owned public broadcasting station. Slowly, the hard efforts of many people inside and outside of government brought about real change. While the image of African-Americans in the media is still not what I’d like, things did improve.
Our success back then held an important lesson for today—and it is a lesson that I hope the FCC heard clearly at the meeting. Television and radio may not be as influential today as they were back then. Today’s important medium is the Internet—specifically, high-speed Internet service that allows access to videos, music, entertainment and a range of other video options. This is as important today as television and radio were 30 years ago.
For underprivileged communities, high-speed Internet service is crucial for their advancement, socially and economically. Fiber-optic wires deployed into homes can help unemployed or underemployed people learn new work skills. These lines give students the chance to take classes in subjects not available at their local schools and offer one-click access to a wealth of information. They give small or home-based businesses the chance to succeed against larger, better-funded rivals.
But here’s the problem the FCC must address: Millions of Americans cannot afford high-speed service or worse, cannot even access it. It is as if 30 years ago, TV and radio signals suddenly stopped at certain neighborhoods. People living there would have been at a terrible disadvantage—just as people without high-speed access today are at a disadvantage.
In the 1970s, the federal government had a moral obligation to speak out about improving African-Americans’ access to broadcasting. Today it must look at speeding up deployment of the Internet to African-American homes today. At a minimum, this means adopting policies that make it easier for companies to deploy these high-speed systems.
More than $100 billion has already been spent to deploy high-speed systems across America. But tens of billions more are necessary for every American to benefit. The FCC’s focus should be on how it can speed this process, either through federal programs or by helping persuade private companies to commit the resources necessary to make this happen.
Above all, the FCC should obey the first rule of medicine: It should do no harm. The commissioners should turn away any efforts to increase undue regulation that could stifle investment. Increased regulation would lead to court battles, delays in deployment and greater expense—and for no good purpose.
Unfortunately, far too many Americans are still waiting for their first option for high-speed access. Meanwhile, America lags behind nations in Asia and Europe that are using high-speed networks to build an educated work force and economic growth at our expense.
(Reverend Benjamin L. Hooks of Memphis is a former executive director of the NAACP and a former member of the Federal Communications Commission.)