Minorities remain grossly underrepresented in communications and media businesses (Rep. Bobby Rush)

The Joint Center has been one of the nation’s pre-eminent think tanks and public research and policy organizations — not just with respect to societal, economic, and domestic issues that are of great concern to African-Americans. But, in reality, many of these same issues impact all Americans — those who are underserved in terms of broadband and healthcare delivery, those who have no, or little, political voice, those who are chronically under-employed in our tight labor market, and those who are worse off in terms of their personal net worth and future financial security as compared to their parents and, even, their grandparents only one to several generations ago.

Let me take a moment, here, to digress from my prepared remarks to address the issue of network neutrality. I’m not someone who fears confronting obvious issues and so, I’d like to share with you some of what’s on my mind regarding the subject. The thing that really concerns me about the issue of net neutrality is not so much the issue itself as I do believe in equal access for everyone who uses the Internet but, rather, it reminds me of one of those issues that largely misses the point of the people I serve and, in fact, live with each and every day in my community. You know, when I was a child, I grew up watching a lot of old movies where you had these classic battles between King Kong and Godzilla. Do you remember those? And of course you know what happened between these two goliaths when they battled each other, right? While each of these giants was wailing away at one another, knocking each other down, tearing down telephone lines and ripping up infrastructure, demolishing cars, and rolling around on top of buildings and people, guess what happened? The people, you know, the little guys, they got squashed like bugs under their feet because they were the innocent bystanders whose interests and, in fact, their very lives, were crushed in the epic battle between those two titans. When King Kong and Godzilla were battling each other they could have cared less about the little guys who got caught in their path.

That’s what issues like net neutrality mean to me. Even though this issue has been framed in terms of broadband access for poor and minority people to attract people like me to their audience and to add potency to their arguments, the real battle has more to do with which giant can topple or get the best of the other. It annoys me when people who purport to represent people of color start talking about low-income, or poor people, as if they intimately know about their problems and challenges. Unlike those people, I do know and understand.

Large companies who fund and support some of these groups and claim to know my community and its needs remind me of King Kong and Godzilla because all they do is fight one another over issues that bear no relationship to the lives of the people I serve. The house that I live in is next door to public housing. No one can tell me about poor people because poor people are my neighbors and I know how they live. Their major concerns are not about broadband deployment or access since their homes and housing units are already heavily served by cable, telephone, and other competitors. These firms know that these segments of the population are a lucrative market for them inasmuch as people and families with less disposable income cannot afford to take a “night out on the town” or engage in many other, more costly forms of entertainment outside of their homes.

Their Internet experience is very different than those who represent the King Kongs and Goliaths of our national broadband debate.

As one of the most senior Democrats who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and one of only five senior Democrats assigned to the Communications, Technology and Internet subcommittee (commonly referred to as the CT&I subcommittee), I have been privileged to listen to stakeholders, formulate policy, and draft legislation that affects access by all Americans to media offerings and communications services, including broadband access to the Internet.

You know, as I recount my time on the CT&I subcommittee, I vividly remember an incident that occurred in one of my subcommittee hearings. It was when the flurry of congressional activity around network neutrality was at its height. A dynamic former commissioner from the Florida Public Service Commission, Ms. Julia Johnson, who happens to be an African-American woman with many years of experience in the realm of telecommunications and information technology, came to testify to share her first-hand experiences and opinions regarding the need for net neutrality laws. As she proceeded to testify, she took some issue with the necessity of net neutrality as an appropriate solution. I will never forget how one of my colleagues had the nerve to rudely interrupt her and ask her who paid for her trip to Washington. I tell you, ladies and gentlemen, in that moment the spirit of that question solidified in my mind the whole elitist and entitlement mindset with respect to the broadband and the Internet. Many of the people I encounter in some of the leading special interest groups could care less about the needs of poor people and are much more focused on working to ensure that they shut down reasonable and intelligent voices of dissent.

Needless to say I was outraged by the question put to Ms. Johnson. I interrupted her before she could respond and told her not to answer that question because no one else had been asked about their travel arrangements. Trust me, that question made me snap back to my Black Panther days because of the sheer arrogance and paternalism that question exhibited.

I also have to share with you more instances of disappointment and frustration that I felt over the years under the previous leadership of former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin. I talked to Kevin publicly and privately on numerous occasions, and I kept pressing him about what the Bush administration would do to enhance minority participation in the development of broadband. And you know what he kept telling me? He’d say, “Bobby, I promise I’m going to include your concerns as part of my agenda.” Martin never held to his promises, and under his leadership minorities continued to suffer staggering losses in ownership of FCC broadcasting licenses and spectrum auctions were not designed in a way to increase the odds for minorities to taste some success at winning some of the auctioned spectrum licenses. As a matter of fact, if any of you see or talk to Kevin Martin, tell him I’d still like to talk to him.

During the time I have left on this wonderful platform, let’s envision how we can get out of this wilderness and to a promised land. A promised land where we can partner with like-minded interests—and, possibly, with some non like-minded groups who may want different ends but are willing to employ the same means to get to where they are going. I can imagine a promised land where we undertake methodic but aggressive actions to level some of the most glaring disparities that exist between African Americans, other minorities and their white counterparts.

In order to get to that promised place, I believe it is imperative for us to shift the focus of the current policy discourse and frameworks. Up until now, Congress, the Federal Communications Commission, administration agencies, and many advocacy organizations that purport to speak for communities of color have focused most of their time and resources on the sole, albeit important proposition that minorities must be treated fairly as consumers and subscribers of communications and technology services.

I submit that this is only one part of the equation. A big factor in that equation is missing.

In order to achieve the desired outcomes of inclusion, affordability, ubiquitous access to broadband services and more true universal service reform for the unserved and underserved in the most enduring fashion possible, the door to ownership has to swing open far more widely than where it’s perched today.

That’s just one more reason why I strongly believe we’ve got to get some momentum going behind the notion that minority and truly small businesses – not front groups or shams – should become owners, executives, and high ranking managers of the companies that hold broadcasting (and even satellite) licenses, and that bid, successfully, at future auctions to use the hundreds of megahertz of spectrum that will be inevitably released and reallocated for new uses.

Why do I say this? I say it simply because these are the people, in the positions of power, who will decide where to deploy service, how much it will cost, what those service offerings will consist of, who its employees are, which employees will get passed over or will receive sufficient training so that they are promotable and can develop skills that are transferrable and, even, portable across diverse sectors and industries.

At times, I am amazed at the manner in which considerably-sized and nimble, emerging communications and media businesses have reinvented themselves or tapped into new, disruptive technologies to become influential players practically overnight in the communications and technology ecosystems. I am wide-eyed at the thought that innovative and ingenious network engineers and software developers, who form start-ups and work for these companies as they squeeze ever increasing amounts of bandwidth out of finite spectrum and physical plant at their disposal.

I am astounded at how these facilities can support the carriage and transmission of exabytes and zettabytes of data packets, translating them into conversations, video, and messaging services among millions of network subscribers and media and multi-media platform listeners and users. But I am not so dazzled or blinded by the science to see that minorities are grossly underrepresented in these industries as owners, executives, and high ranking managers.  

As I close my remarks, I implore you to seize the day, to think out loud and outside the box, and never forget that I will be here, in Congress, fighting alongside and with you to open that door as wide as it should open, which isn’t a quarter of the way, half, or three-quarters, but all the way!

Thank you very much.

Rep. Bobby Rush, who has served for the last four years as the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection is seeking support from his Democratic colleagues to serve as the Ranking Member of the Communications, Technology and the Internet Subcommittee in the 112th Congress.