Chairman’s Year End Message 2014

I believe deeply that our media and telecommunications can and must serve the public interest and enhance our democracy. On this bedrock faith, the Benton Foundation seeks policy solutions that support the values of access, diversity and equity; demonstrates the value of media and telecommunications for improving the quality of life for all; and provides informational resources to policymakers and advocates to inform communications policy debates.

Our overarching goal is to close the digital divide and support digital inclusion, so the most vulnerable populations can participate fully in a diverse media system and in our democracy. With this goal in mind, here are the areas the foundation devoted ourselves to this year.

The Public Interest Communications Law Project and the Benton Senior Counselor

The experiences of all people must inform media and telecommunications policy decisions, so I was honored to play a key role in efforts that led to the creation of the Public Interest Communications Law Project at Georgetown Law School in January 2014 and the appointment of veteran public interest communications attorney Andrew Jay Schwartzman to serve as the Benton Senior Counselor. This effort would not have been possible without our three initial funders Alphawood Foundation, Ford Foundation and Media Democracy Fund, who were joined by a fourth grantor, Participant Media, in late 2014. We are grateful to all of them for their support.

Andy is mentoring a diverse cohort of young advocates who will represent civil rights and civil liberties groups, consumer and religious groups, leading media reform organizations and other non-profits before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Courts on telecommunications and media issues. Andy’s addition to the team at Georgetown’s Institute for Public Representation, led by Professor Angela Campbell, is expanding the law clinic’s capacity to give voice to the needs and concerns of the nation’s most vulnerable populations in telecommunications policy debates. Andy is developing a new, and more diverse, generation of media and telecommunications lawyers while making huge contributions on issues such as diversity of media ownership, the rules for online public files, sponsorship identification of political advertising, and prison phone call rates.

Andy is also a monthly contributor to Benton’s Digital Beat blog, writing articles that analyze the legal issues in key communications debates. He joins former Federal Communications Commissioner and current Common Cause executive Michael Copps, who focused many of his 2014 monthly opinion columns on the case for Net Neutrality.

Advocating for Universal Broadband Access

I believe that everyone in this nation should be able to fully participate in the digital age. To me that means available, affordable broadband that connects meaningful content to diverse audiences. For the most-vulnerable, and especially when we consider the potential of our next generation, I agree with FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn’s model of the three-legged stool of success: broadband at school, broadband in the library and broadband at home. For that reason we at the Benton Foundation have focused our resources in 2014 to modernizing and expanding the E-rate program, protecting and improving the Lifeline program, and advocating for a careful technology transition that takes key public interest values into account as innovations in network technology change the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure.

E-rate and ConnectED: Improving Educational Outcomes with Broadband

On December 11, 2014, the FCC capped 18 months worth of comprehensive reform of the E-rate program, the nation’s largest program supporting education technology. In July, the FCC adopted new E-rate administration rules, streamlining the program, making it faster, simpler, and more efficient. The new rules focused on cost-effectiveness of all E-rate spending through greater pricing transparency, encouraging consortia and bulk purchasing, and better enforcement of existing rules. The reform also migrated E-rate support from traditional non-broadband services to focus on external broadband connections and Wi-Fi connectivity to schools and libraries. The FCC’s December vote approved additional E-rate funding for libraries and schools to purchase broadband connectivity capable of delivering gigabit service over the next five years. The rules also raise the spending cap on the E-rate program from the current $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion -- the first reset of the cap since it was initially set at $2.25 million in 1997, an amount that wasn’t adjusted for inflation until 2010.

The FCC E-rate actions are a huge win for U.S. education and communities. The E-rate program is now poised to offer every child a key to unlock their potential, providing the tools to connect every school and library to high-capacity broadband -- and Wi-Fi connectivity that delivers critical education tools right to students’ desks. The FCC closed the gap of access to high capacity for schools and libraries. The FCC closed the affordability gap that has prevented many of these community institutions from handling the recurring costs of these connections. And the FCC closed the funding gap that prevented investment in our educational infrastructure. Now all students will have the opportunity to develop the skills they need to succeed and prosper, and to realize the American Dream. We could not be happier about these reforms adopted by the FCC.

Lifeline Reform and Modernization: Bringing Affordable Broadband Home

In addition to the E-rate, the FCC has also been hard at work reforming its Lifeline program which provides discounts on monthly telephone service for eligible low-income subscribers. Following its familiar pattern, the FCC first streamlined the administration of Lifeline, rooting out waste, fraud and abuse. In 2015, we’re looking forward to the FCC modernizing Lifeline for the 21st century. The Commission has signaled, and we will be supporting, a transition of Lifeline from a telephone-focused safety net into a modern springboard focused on making broadband more affordable for low-income homes.

The IP Transition: Promoting New Technology and American Values

In late 2013, the Benton Foundation released The New Network Compact: Making the IP Transition Work for Vulnerable Communities which outlined what is at stake as the underlying technologies that support our telephone system move to the Internet and wireless services. That transition is progressing and we are heartened to see the actions the FCC has taken to maintain traditional public interest values -- public safety, universal access, competition, and consumer protection – in the new networks.

At Benton we’ve been advocating for key principles we believe must guide the transition. Of special note in 2014 and into 2015 are Openness, Competition and Interconnection. We believe that in the new networks:

  • Consumers must retain their rights to utilize any legal applications, content, devices, and services of their choosing on the broadband networks they use;
  • Policies should encourage new entrants into the emerging IP-enabled network market; and
  • Regulators must ensure that competing network providers are able to interconnect in areas where there is legacy market power. Subscribers must be able to reach subscribers on any other network.

We could not accomplish our goals without our allies and partners in the field of philanthropy, public interest communications, education and civil rights who are working to ensure communications strengthen democracy and make people’s lives better.

And big thanks to our dedicated Trustees and Board of Directors, who work tirelessly to help fulfill Benton’s mission. In 2014, the Benton Foundation Trustees invited long-time leader in the field of philanthropy and now President of the Ruth Mott Foundation, Handy L. Lindsey Jr., to join our Board of Directors.

I have relied on the dedication and energy of Adrianne Benton Furniss, who just completed her first year as Executive Director of Benton, and of our talented staff: Rita Cook, Amina Fazlullah, Jeremy Isett, Kip Roderick, Kevin Taglang and newcomer to the Headlines team, Robbie McBeath.

We wish you all the best for a happy New Year.

By Charles Benton.