“Nothing is more seminal to our existence than how we connect. Today we are on the cusp of what could become the greatest network-driven change in history.” Tom Wheeler, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission
Last week, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chair Tom Wheeler and FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn took an important step towards ensuring that communities of color, emerging entrepreneurs and urban communities will not be disadvantaged or left behind by the growth of the Internet. Heeding appeals from the civil rights community and others in support of economic inclusion, Chairman Wheeler circulated a proposal to open new opportunities for small and growing businesses in the mobile marketplace. According to Roger Sherman, the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau Chief, the purpose for “updating the Commission’s approach to small business participation in wireless auctions is simple: To provide innovative, smaller companies the opportunity to build wireless businesses that can spur additional investment and bring more choices to consumers.”
Although the wireless industry continues to grow at an accelerated rate, current FCC rules have virtually shut out small businesses from any meaningful participation by setting special rules that place them at a disadvantage to the major players. Consolidation in the wireless industry has created significant barriers for these entrepreneurs, making the building of their own wireless networks unfeasible, and current FCC rules favor larger companies in bidding on available spectrum. As the FCC’s Roger Sherman further suggests, we must level the playing field where “more than 95 percent of existing customers are served by the top four providers.”
FCC Chair Wheeler and Commissioner Clyburn are both strong advocates of expanding diversity throughout the telecommunications industry. In appointing Wheeler, a long-time telecommunications entrepreneur and industry leader as FCC Chairman last year, President Obama called him “the Bo Jackson of Telecom” for being the only person inducted into both the Cable Television Hall of Fame and the Wireless Hall of Fame. (Bo Jackson is the only athlete to be named an all-star in both professional football and professional baseball.) Mignon Clyburn has been an FCC Commissioner since 2009 and briefly served as the first woman head of the FCC when she was appointed Acting Chairwoman in 2013.
Chairman Wheeler and Commissioner Clyburn are addressing a problem that advocates have noted for years: changes to the Designated Entity rules affecting small, minority and women-owned businesses (MWBEs) have contributed to their declining participation and sustainability.
The proposal circulated to the Commission last week by Chairman Tom Wheeler is an important first step towards updating the FCC’s approach to spectrum auctions to reflect 21st century business realities and enable MWBEs a more effective on-ramp to opportunities in the wireless arena.
My statement released last Friday in support of the proposal said in part, “Over the course of fifty-six wireless auctions during the past 20 years, very few small MWBEs have been able to participate effectively in the FCC’s spectrum auctions and win licenses. To deliver on the promise of innovation, competition and universal deployment of broadband and other advanced wireless services that are changing America as we know it, the inclusion of MWBEs as licensees and facilities-based spectrum owners – not just service providers or mobile application developers – must be an integral part of the wireless industry and the policies of the FCC.” We applaud the leadership of Chairman Wheeler and Commissioner Clyburn on this and other efforts to expand diversity in the telecommunications industry and urge the other Commissioners to join them. We look forward to contributing to the new proposal and working with the Commission on ways to improve the Designated Entity rules in time for next year's broadcast incentive auction.
Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.