FCC Chairman hears from consumer advocates on universal phone service, the digital divide, and net neutrality
On Thursday, it was standing room only in Nile Hall at Preservation Park as hundreds of Oakland residents gathered to tell Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler about the issues that matter most to them. The event, hosted by the Voices for Internet Freedom Coalition in partnership with the Center for Media Justice, Free Press, ColorOfChange and the National Hispanic Media Coalition, was the chairman’s first community event outside the Beltway.
Chairman Wheeler welcomed the opportunity to hear from Oakland residents, and he acknowledged that the FCC has work to do to ensure that its policies have a positive impact on the public and reflect the nation’s diversity.
“I really do believe what the underlying theme of all of these presentations was that, at this point in history more than any other, the networks that connect us are the networks that define us,” Wheeler said. “It’s not just economics or commerce, it’s our culture and our individual lives. That makes our job at the FCC incredibly important. And I take that very seriously.”
Oakland youth poet laureate Obasi Davis opened the evening with a reading of his poem “The skin the sun gave me.” The piece explores what it’s like to be a black man in a world where media stereotypes of people of color are all too common.
Center for Media Justice Executive Director Malkia Cyril continued the theme, noting that the media neglect to cover the real conflicts and challenges people face.
“Oakland has a problem with negative media stereotypes about our city and residents, and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler can help solve it,” Cyril said. “The pattern of misrepresentation fails to report stories of inequity and achievement, and highlights stories of crime and violence. This pattern isn’t the result of bad journalists; it’s the result of a media that is being gutted by corporations and left unprotected by regulators.”
National Hispanic Media Coalition Executive Vice President and General Counsel Jessica González echoed the importance of the Internet in correcting misrepresentations and promoting equality.
“Affordable, universal and open broadband internet access is integral to achieving equality in the United States,” González said. “This is particularly important for people of color, who have faced not only media misrepresentation and discrimination from economic opportunities, but also lag behind in broadband adoption. “We thank Chairman Wheeler for being here in Oakland this evening and call on him to do everything in his power to ensure that all Americans, and especially our children, have first-class access to all of the opportunities that broadband internet affords.”
California Public Utilities Commissioner Catherine J.K. Sandoval took the stage shortly after and shared details of the CPUC’s plan to ensure that Californians continue to have basic protections as the big phone companies modernize their networks. She also outlined the agency’s effort to expand the Lifeline program to the people who need it most.
“We have heard stories of people running out of minutes while on the phone with social services, with disability services,” Sandoval said. “We have put forth a proposal that would give Lifeline subscribers more minutes because running out of them while on the phone with a service like a suicide hotline is unthinkable.”
Free Press Associate Policy Director Chancellar Williams framed the evening’s panel discussion as a story of inequality that policymakers must address.
“This is the story of state deregulation that has caused the cost of basic phone service to triple at a time when those who rely on it most can least afford it,” Williams said. “This is the story of a region that, much like the entire country, has areas of tremendous prosperity that have state-of-the-art broadband access—and many areas like Oakland, where people still struggle to afford quality Internet service. This is the story of a region where people of color make up two-thirds of the population and own only 5 percent of the region’s full-power television stations.”
Before the community testimony began, several leaders from Oakland-based organizations—including Greenlining Institute Energy & Telecommunications Policy Director Stephanie Chen, CIVIC Co-Executive Director Christina Mansfield, ColorOfChange Executive Director Rashad Robinson and The Utility Reform Network Executive Director Mark Toney —discussed several issues facing the FCC, including the battle over the open Internet, the need to protect consumers through the modernization of the public communications network, the future of the Lifeline program, and high phone rates for prisoners.
The evening closed with a presentation to Chairman Wheeler of thousands of petition signatures from activists across the nation who want him to visit their own communities for public events and town halls. Voices for Internet Freedom also plans to deliver hundreds of individual statements submitted during the event about a wide range of media issues to the FCC.
“We hope that this is just the beginning and that you and your fellow Commissioners are able to leave Washington on a regular basis throughout your tenure, ” Williams said to Wheeler. “People are very excited to meet you and your colleagues.”