Looking Back at 2011

As the Benton Foundation closes out our 30th year as an organization dedicated to the ideal of media and telecommunications serving the public interest and enhancing our democracy, here are some thoughts on our major activities during these past twelve months.

Benton believes that everyone in this nation should be able to participate in the digital age. For that reason we have devoted staff resources to Universal Service Fund (USF) reform and modernization, specifically in the Lifeline and Link Up programs. Benton Policy Counsel Amina Fazlullah has worked with our colleagues in the public interest sector to preserve and strengthen these low-income support programs and enable a smooth transition from plain-old-telephone service to broadband. Her leadership has resulted in the engagement of organizations not previously active in this arena but whose constituencies stand to benefit from modernizing these essential programs.

As Susan Crawford reminded us in a recent New York Times opinion piece, the digital divide is taking on new dimensions in the 21st century. We must not ignore the implications of relegating low-income consumers to what amounts to second class Internet service. Our appointment to serve again on the Consumer Advisory Committee (CAC) of the Federal Communications Commission enables us to work on these issues. Benton Executive Director Cecilia Garcia heads the CAC’s USF Reform working group, which is helping to craft the CAC’s recommendations on bringing affordable broadband services to low income households.

Benton’s information services continued to expand in 2011, under the leadership of Communications-related Headlines Editor Kevin Taglang and Chief technologist Jeremy Isett. In addition to maintaining the comprehensive data base of headlines articles, Benton.Org now also provides users with the means to track major telecommunications developments – the National Broadband Plan, for example, as well as the major merger transactions of 2011. We were especially pleased that the CAC’s Broadband Working Group recently used the National Broadband Plan tracker to help prioritize its work.

Benton has always placed a high premium on ensuring a diversity of voices in what we hear, see and read. In 2011 we supported projects that reflect Benton’s belief that solid research informs good policy. With direction provided by the Alliance for Communications Democracy, we commissioned a study on the current state of public, educational and government (PEG) access cable television channels. The findings indicate that of the three types of channels, public access has been the hardest hit by a wave of funding cuts and closures across the country in recent years. Our PEG study has been referenced in several government reports.

Benton has also continued to collaborate with our allies on such longstanding priorities as public interest obligations for television broadcasters and online privacy protections for children. As a member of the Public Interest Public Airwaves Coalition (PIPAC), Benton has supported public filings at the FCC on disclosure requirements for broadcasters. With our colleagues in the Children’s Media Policy Coalition, we are encouraging the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to revise the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) for the fast-changing digital environment.

I am grateful for the hard work and support of Benton’s Board of Directors. With the addition in 2011 of Jim Kohlenberger, the Benton Board’s engagement enhances our effectiveness now more than ever. We look forward to an even more productive 2012!

Charles Benton, Chairman

By Charles Benton.