Glass Ceiling Shattered at FCC: The Clyburn Chairmanship Begins

On July 11, 1934, Eugene O. Sykes became the first chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. He held the post until March 8, 1935 when Anning S. Prall rose to be chair. Since then, each succeeding FCC chair has been a man – that is, until May 20, 2013, when Mignon Clyburn became the Acting Chairwoman of the commission.

Chairwoman Clyburn becomes the third FCC chair of the Obama presidency after Acting Chairman Michael Copps and Julius Genachowski. Chairwoman Clyburn began her service at the FCC in August, 2009, after spending 11 years as a member of the sixth district on the Public Service Commission (PSC) of South Carolina. She served as its chair from July 2002 through June 2004. Prior to her service on the PSC, Clyburn was the publisher and general manager of The Coastal Times, a Charleston-based weekly newspaper that focused primarily on issues affecting the African American community. She co-owned and operated the family-founded newspaper for 14 years. Chairwoman Clyburn is the daughter of Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), the Assistant Democratic Leader and third-ranking Democrat in the House behind House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD).

As Commissioner Clyburn assumed the FCC chairmanship, The Hill said she “is known as a liberal on the five-member commission and is a vocal advocate for media diversity and the commission's social welfare programs.” Joseph Torres, the senior external affairs director of Free Press, noted that as a commissioner, Clyburn has defended the Lifeline program — which provides access to basic phone service for poor households — against political attacks. And she’s spoken out against the unlawful practice of charging predatory rates for phone calls that prisoners make to families and friends.

Even though her chairmanship may be just a few months long as the Senate considers the nomination of Tom Wheeler, Washington watchers are wondering what Chairwoman Clyburn’s agenda will be.

On May 20, in a statement to the FCC staff, Chairwoman Clyburn indicated what her priorities are: “continuity and progress.” She described herself as a member of a relay team -- "My job is to build on forward momentum, give the next teammate a running start, an improved position, and no matter what, my goal is not to drop the baton.” Fellow commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Ajit Pai saluted Chairwoman Clyburn’s commitment to the public interest and pledged to work with her in the coming months.

In accordance with Murphy’s Law, Chairwoman Clyburn was not in complete control of FCC-related news on her first day. In what is perhaps a good omen, Chairwoman Clyburn got to comment on good news for the FCC when the Supreme Court ruled in the commission’s favor in City of Arlington (TX) v. FCC. The FCC’s high-profile attempt to defend its network neutrality rules against a court challenge got major support, court observers say, as the Court ruled that regulatory agencies should usually be granted deference in interpreting their own jurisdictions. In a 6-to-3 decision, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that in cases where Congress has left ambiguous the outlines of a regulatory agency’s jurisdiction, “the court must defer to the administering agency’s construction of the statute so long as it is permissible.” Chairwoman Clyburn said, “I am pleased that, as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision today, one of the Commission’s major achievements in promoting broadband access will continue to protect consumers and drive investment. Removing obstacles to the timely build-out of wireless broadband services remains a key priority.” The ruling could have big implications for Verizon v. FCC, in which Verizon challenged the FCC’s Open Internet Order, its rules on network neutrality. Those rules say that an Internet service provider must treat all traffic on its system roughly equally, not giving priority to any one type of data or application as it moves through the provider’s Internet pipes. That case is pending before the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

On May 21, Chairwoman Clyburn was in Las Vegas to give her first address as FCC chair. “They say the first rule of being an Acting Chair, is not to take unnecessary gambles or risks. So on my first full day, what do I do? Hop on a plane for Las Vegas,” she joked to attendees of CTIA 2013, a wireless industry conference. The speech, The Verge noted, however, definitely wasn't taking big risks, staying unwaveringly on-message with the speeches that just-departed Chairman Genachowski delivered at CTIA and elsewhere in years past. She noted that 97 percent of American wireless consumers now receive usage alerts to mitigate bill shock, for example. She noted that the wireless incentive auction — intended to pay television broadcasters for spectrum that can be reused for broadband — is on track for 2014. The take-home quote for many: “We have taken a light regulatory touch, but have ‘touched’ when necessary to ensure clear rules of the road and fair play.” She stressed that the FCC will continue to “work hard to ensure that all Americans are served and are served by a competitive and fair environment.”

The relay race metaphor is apropos for a couple of recent announcements from the FCC about continuing work in universal service reform and meeting the information needs of communities.

  • On May 22, Chairwoman Clyburn announced a public-private effort to connect hundreds of thousands of Americans to high-speed broadband as a result of the second release of Phase I funds of the Connect America Fund. The fund will offer up to $485 million to expand fixed broadband in rural America. The additional investment will leverage millions in additional private investment to quickly serve rural areas currently lacking access to high-speed broadband. This additional investment comes as the FCC moves into Phase II of the Connect America Fund, created in the historic overhaul and reform of the FCC’s traditional universal service program for rural voice service. Phase II will provide ongoing annual support of $1.8 billion for both voice and broadband service, all without increasing growth in the fund. Any funding not accepted in Phase 1 will be used to connect unserved communities in Phase II. Total FCC investment in expansion and support of rural fixed and mobile broadband and voice through universal service is budgeted at $4.5 billion. Chairwoman Clyburn said, “We take significant steps to connect these unserved communities and consumers today, and in so doing are moving another step closer to fulfilling goals set forth in our historical overhaul of the high-cost Universal Service Fund: to ensure that all Americans have access to voice and broadband services. Comprehensive reforms made this Order possible, and I want to thank former Chairman Genachowski for his leadership on these issues.”
  • On May 24, the FCC’s Office of Communications Business Opportunities (OCBO) released the Research Design for the Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs. To develop policies that ensure that the critical informational needs of Americans are being met and that would advance the goal of diversity, including the promotion of greater women and minority participation in media, the FCC needs to conduct or commission research that illuminates the diversity of views available to local communities, the diversity of sources in local markets and the diversity of critical information needs of the American public, including women and minorities. This Research Design provides the commission with a research tool to examine in a variety of markets how the public acquires critical information, how the media eco-system operates to provide critical information, and what barriers exist to participation. The Research Design and subsequent studies are intended to inform the Commission’s 2012 report to Congress on barriers to participation, also known as the Section 257 Report. Section 257 of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended, requires that the Commission review and report to Congress on: (1) regulations prescribed to eliminate market entry barriers for entrepreneurs and other small businesses in the provision and ownership of telecommunications and information services or in the provision of parts or services to providers of those services and that can be prescribed consistent with the public interest, convenience and necessity; and (2) proposals to eliminate statutory barriers to market entry by those entities, consistent with the public interest, convenience, and necessity. Although it was commissioned pursuant to Section 257, analysis resulting from the University of Southern California (USC) Literature Review and the Critical Information Needs Studies will be relevant to the commission’s future analysis of broadcast ownership issues in upcoming Quadrennial Reviews, including issues related to minority and female ownership. With the release, Chairwoman Clyburn said, “The FCC has a duty to make sure that the industries it regulates serve the needs of the American public no matter where they live or what financial resources they have. The research design we announce today is an important next step in understanding what those needs are, how Americans obtain the information critical to their daily lives in a dynamic technological environment, and what barriers exist in our media ecologies to providing and accessing this information.”

Finally, we share with you a quick look at Chairwoman Clyburn’s new staff – announced on May 30. Chairman Clyburn appointed P. Michele Ellison, currently chief of the Enforcement Bureau, as Chief of Staff. Dave Grimaldi will serve as Chief Counsel and Senior Legal Advisor. She also named legal advisors, including Louis Peraertz for wireless, international, and public safety issues; Rebekah Goodheart for wireline issues; and Sarah Whitesell, currently Deputy Bureau Chief of the Media Bureau, for media issues. Drema Johnson will serve as Confidential Assistant. Dorothy Givens-Terry will serve as Special Assistant. Carol Lott and DeeAnn Smith will serve as Staff Assistants.

  • Ellison previously served as Chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, which is responsible for effectively carrying out the agency’s rules and orders. Previously, Ellison was Acting General Counsel of the agency, where she served as primary legal counsel to the Commission and prior to that, she served as Deputy General Counsel for twelve years. She has counseled the Commissioners and other senior staff on legal issues related to the regulation of the various communications industries, including advising on litigation risks associated with rulemaking and adjudicatory decisions.
  • Grimaldi previously served as Chief of Staff in then Commissioner Clyburn’s office after serving as Senior Counsel to House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-SC) on technology and telecommunications, foreign affairs, and financial services regulation. He previously counseled corporate, financial and non-profit clients as Senior Counsel at The Raben Group and served as Legislative Counsel to Representative Ed Towns (D-NY), on the House Commerce Committee and its Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.
  • Peraertz joined then Commissioner Clyburn’s staff in October 2009. Prior to this, he served as Special Counsel in the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau focusing on competition, spectrum allocation, and infrastructure policy issues. Peraertz began his communications career in the Office of General Counsel where, among other things, he represented the Commission in several cases before courts of appeal.
  • Goodheart has worked at the Commission since January 2008. She served as Deputy Director of the Technology Transitions Policy Task Force and Associate Chief of the Wireline Competition Bureau. Goodheart previously served as a Senior Policy Advisor for the Omnibus Broadband Initiative, developing many of the recommendations in National Broadband Plan. She also served as Assistant Division Chief in the Industry Analysis Division of the Media Bureau.
  • Whitesell previously served as Deputy Bureau Chief of the Media Bureau, where she shaped policies for the media marketplace on broadcast ownership, children's issues, and media transactions, among other matters. Prior to joining the Bureau in 2005, she served as Associate Chief of the Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis, Associate Chief of the Cable Bureau, Acting Legal Advisor to Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein on media issues and Legal Advisor to Commissioner Gloria Tristani for common carrier issues. Whitesell has also served as a member of the Telecommunications Task Force for the Department of Justice's Antitrust Division.
  • Johnson is responsible for managing the office as well as the Acting Chairwoman’s personal schedule and travel arrangements. She previously served as Special Assistant to former House Speaker Thomas S. Foley and as Confidential Assistant to former FCC Chairman William Kennard.
  • Smith joined the agency in 2009 and will continue to assist in carrying out the mission of the Clyburn office and the agency. She has an extensive administrative background, including experience in the legal and marketing industries.
  • Terry is an experienced researcher, interviewer, reporter and entrepreneur. She spent a number of years at Pepco Holdings, Inc., Computing Technologies, on the Hill and in the newsrooms of two daily papers.
  • Carol Lott brings more than 26 years of administrative and office management experience to the Acting Chief of Staff as a Special Assistant. The Administrative Management Specialist in the Enforcement Bureau previously served as a senior staff assistant in the Chairman’s office, the Executive Administrator and Office Manager for Temple Strategies and an Executive Assistant in the Office of General Counsel.

The “glass ceiling” is a concept that betrays America’s most cherished principles. It is the unseen, yet unbreachable barrier that keeps minorities and women from rising to positions of leadership, regardless of their qualifications or achievements. Sadly, it took nearly 79 years for a woman to become chair of the FCC and this first chairwoman has "Acting" in front of her title. Nevertheless, the move suggests progress and we are excited to track Chairwoman Clyburn’s record. In the meantime, we’ll see you in the Headlines.

By Kevin Taglang.