Outgoing FCC Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn says she wants to be remembered as a “conduit for change” and a “voice for the voiceless,” and she points to her success at helping forge a lower 700 megahertz band device interoperability agreement as a high point of her five-and-a-half-month tenure as acting Chairman of the agency in 2013, when she became the first woman in that role.
“I hope people will say that I was a conduit for change, an enabler of opportunities, a voice for the voiceless,” Ms. Clyburn said in an interview with TR Daily. “I hope people will say that I attempted to find solutions that … made the business case.”
As for the legacy of her tenure as acting Chairman between the time Julius Genachowski left the agency in May 2013 (TR Daily, May 17, 2013) and Tom Wheeler’s swearing in that November (TR Daily, Nov. 4, 2013), Ms. Clyburn, who announced earlier this month that she would leave the agency before its May 10 meeting (TR Daily, April 17), cited the successful effort to find a compromise among industry stakeholders to the lack of device interoperability in the lower 700 MHz band. The problem, she noted, had “sat around for years.”
The interoperability agreement came after negotiations between AT&T, Inc., and lower A-block licensees intensified after Ms. Clyburn threatened to put a draft order mandating interoperability on the an FCC meeting agenda (TR Daily, Sept. 10, 2013).
Referring to her tenure as acting Chairman, Ms. Clyburn said, “I hope that people will see that there is no one makeup or person or individual with a particular background that has the capacity to lead and serve.”
“This city, I think, is very insensitive and sometimes hostile to non-lawyers,” she said, adding that she wanted to show that “someone with a Southern drawl, with a bachelor’s degree, can lead and can manage.”
Since FCC Chairman Ajit Pai took over last year, Ms. Clyburn and her Republican colleagues have clashed sharply on some high-profile issues.
In the interview, she didn’t deny there had been fights, but she stressed that “I don’t hold grudges,” and that however “passionate and salty” disagreements on one item can become, she hasn’t let it influence her willingness to deal with her colleagues on other items.
“You can disagree without being disagreeable,” she said. “I do everything I can to not be personal. It is about the issue, it is about the item. … I don’t carry that over to the next issue or item.” To do so, she added, “diminishes all of us.”
Asked whether it has been frustrating to be in the political minority on the Commission for the last 15 months, she said, “I have never found it difficult to be in a political minority. You might note that I spent the bulk of my regulatory career, 11 years, in a political minority,” she added, with a reference to time spent on the South Carolina PSC as well as on the FCC.
Where she does get frustrated, she said, are when the balance has not been struck to “allow everyone in this ecosystem from that student who can barely get to school on tribal lands … to the most economically endowed big industry ... to move to the next level.” For example, she cited inmate calling service rates, the Lifeline program, and the rollback of the 2015 open Internet order as “glaring and recent examples” of not striking that balance.
As for her future plans, Commissioner Clyburn said that she didn’t have anything specific to announce “at this point” but that she would “continue to work on the things I care about” and that “included in whatever I do next — because it probably won’t be an exclusive path — will be the continued attempts to close divides, to ensure that those whose voices are seldom listened to, that they have another advocate.”
She indicated that she looked forward to being able to speak without the constraints placed on a regulator to strive for “balanced tones. … I find that prospect very liberating. The people and issues that I care about the most will have an advocate who could speak freely, who can approach anyone, elected, appointed, or otherwise.”
Asked about things she feels are left undone as she leaves the agency, she cited proceedings involving inmate calling, the Lifeline program, and independent programming, as well as the net neutrality proceeding, whose 2015 order was reversed in December.
In addition to the loss of net neutrality and broadband privacy consumer protections, she said, “I really think and am very fearful that the Connect America Fund is at risk” without regulatory authority grounded in the 2015 order’s reclassification of broadband Internet access service as a common carrier under Title II of the Communications Act.
“There is going to be some entity out there that is going to challenge the FCC’s ability to maintain the current universal service model,” putting support for rural broadband deployment at risk, the Commissioner said. “That is a price too high, … no matter what you think about the 2015 rules,” she said.
Asked about the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee established by Chairman Pai to develop recommendations for lowering barriers to broadband deployment, Commissioner Clyburn said, “There are three local members of BDAC. … That is not in proportion of the expectations of those in the state and local communities. It is not in line and in sync with the significant impact that their decisions could mean if we embrace them. It is weighted heavily by industry who again answers only to shareholders and their bottom-line interests.”
She said that if the FCC majority comes down in “a mode of … preemption, of that type of posturing that we don’t strike the proper balance, then what I’m afraid of is that not only will we have a significant imbalance when it comes to needs of the communities and their aesthetics and what people expect, [but] that we will have unnecessary conflict, legal challenges, and tensions that are not good for deployment of broadband-enabled services, small cells, and all of the things that we know that will take us into a 5G future. I think we will get there slower, in a manner that is not as expedited, and in a way in which you create unnecessary tensions between industry, the communities, and those elected and appointed officials. It doesn’t have to be that way. A proper balance I think would solve that. We could get to where everybody wants to go by way of investment, innovation and opportunities without that level of tension.”
Asked about the likelihood — given that the candidates for filling her seat who are viewed as having the backing of top Senate Democrats are Senate and FCC staffers (TR Daily, March 9) — that her departure will mean the end, or at least an interruption, in the long-standing tradition of having a former state commissioner on the FCC, she said, “I can tell you there are a number of people concerned.”
She added, “One thing about being a state commissioner is that you interact on a continual basis because you live and you work and you go shopping with the consumers that rely on these critical services.” State commissioners also generally have experience with evidentiary hearings, “where you heard from the public, and you heard from the consumer advocates, and you heard from the company attempting to make their case. That hard-wires you in a particular way, and it reinforces the fact that the best decisions come when you take all of those points of views into account. You strike as close to a perfect balance when you hear and think and make a decision based on all of those variables and inputs. There are many that are unconcerned that when I leave that dynamic will not be here.”
Ms. Clyburn said she knows which day will be her last at the FCC, but she declined to be specific.
She was also asked why she announced her departure at the April 17 FCC meeting. Her announcement near the end of the meeting took her fellow Commissioners by surprise, and Ms. Clyburn said she had not even told her parents that she would make the announcement that day.
She noted that her current term expired last year, although the Communications Act allows FCC Commissioners to continue to serve until the end of the congressional session following the one in which their term expires, or until a successor is confirmed, whichever comes first.
“I was waiting for the perfect time to make the announcement,” she said, such as when her successor was nominated or confirmed. “I just had been going over and over in my mind exactly when … and woke up that morning and ... concluded that there would never be a perfect time, only the right time, and I concluded that that day was the right time for me.”
Ms. Clyburn was asked what surprised her most about being an FCC Commissioner. Before joining the FCC, she was a member of the South Carolina Public Service Commission for 11 years, including a stint at the helm of the PSC, and before that was the publisher of the “Coastal Times,” a family-owned newspaper in Charleston.
At the FCC, “when you sneeze, you get quoted. I wasn’t ready for that,” she said. “I did not realize what a bubble this was.”
She said that “even the most casual things” that she said, which she may have considered “very insignificant” or even “flippant,” were of interest to not just the news media but also the communications bar. At first, she said, that was “unsettling,” but she said she got used to it.
“I made a promise to myself to not let this job change me, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job” at that, she said, but she added that “the biggest adjustment” was to express herself a bit differently due to the fish bowl atmosphere of the FCC. —Paul Kirby, email@example.com, and Lynn Stanton, firstname.lastname@example.org
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