Opinion

Starks Should Build on the Clyburn Legacy as a Champion for Public Access

Geoffrey Starks is up for confirmation as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission. He is succeeding an extraordinary champion of the public interest, Mignon Clyburn. The American Library Association and others concerned about the public’s ability to engage in advanced telecommunications services hope that Starks will build on the fine Clyburn legacy.

In Clyburn’s speech at a recent event honoring her public service, she touched on a broad range of important policy issues, from prison telephone rates to net neutrality. What’s even more memorable than her accomplishments on the FCC is her vision for the future and the energy and passion to back it up. Discrete telecommunications policy issues and regulatory process are critical, but galvanizing public-interest advocates and bringing new ones to the fold is more important. And for telecommunications issues, there is no better bully pulpit than the FCC to lead this effort.

Librarians in America’s 120,000 public, university, school and special libraries have several issues of concern for the communities we serve. Our overriding priority is equitable access to information and technology for all Americans.

One critical equalizing force is the Universal Service Fund. The E-rate program is particularly vital for powering affordable, high-capacity broadband to and through our nation’s libraries and schools, who have been harnessing the excellent opportunities and fundamental improvements made possible by two E-rate modernization orders adopted by the FCC. As a strong advocate for the E-rate program, Starks can enable libraries and schools to continue down the path toward obtaining the advanced telecommunications services necessary for learning.

Net neutrality also cuts to the heart of libraries’ commitment to digital inclusion. Libraries are deeply concerned that broadband access service providers have financial incentives to interfere with the openness of the internet in ways that are likely to be harmful to people who use the online content and services provided by libraries, schools and higher education institutions. In particular, Starks should advocate that the FCC reverse its recent decision to allow internet service providers to block traffic at will based on content, application or type of device.

Libraries are strong advocates for opportunity for all — and those with the fewest resources are most likely to be left with the least choice and online opportunity. We have far to go in fulfilling the digital promise of what the internet can enable for millions in this country. In the FCC domain, policies such as the Lifeline Program and others like it are instrumental in providing low-income households with telecommunications access. Among libraries’ top priorities is ubiquitous, affordable broadband availability, especially for rural areas (in particular for tribal lands, which have the poorest access of all). In some of these areas, the local library is the only place to get consistent internet access.

Libraries depend on robust Wi-Fi to support patron devices and mobile training labs. People increasingly require and expect Wi-Fi access in libraries and public spaces of all types. Thus, another key policy interest of libraries is continued availability and appropriate expansion of spectrum for unlicensed devices.

Telecommunications policy now plays a vital role in daily life and the nation’s economy. It is not a technology issue any longer, but a national issue. While librarians are strong believers in the marketplace, we also see the need for robust public interest considerations. It is a key responsibility of the federal government and the telecommunications sector’s regulator — the FCC — to ensure that all interests are prudently considered, especially for those stakeholders who need and deserve the most assistance.

The American Library Association looks forward to seeing Starks take up this mantle, following in the footsteps of Mignon Clyburn and along with Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and others striving for the public interest, while naturally forging his own path ahead for all Americans.

Alan S. Inouye, Ph.D., is director of public policy for the American Library Association in Washington, D.C.

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