New FCC chair raises digital divide doubts
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FEBRUARY 7, 2001

Raising doubts about a major initiative of the Clinton administration with direct impacts on Indian Country, Michael Powell, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, on Tuesday expressed reservations about the agency's role in addressing the digital divide.

His predecessor at the the FCC, William Kennard, took a special interest on ensuring access to technology for all Americans and President Bill Clinton last year visited the Navajo Nation to announce a number of initiatives aimed at bridging the divide in Indian Country. But Powell questioned the underlying motives of the initiative in his first press briefing yesterday.

"The [so-called] digital divide means lots of different things to lots of different people, much of which is not in our purview," said Kennard. "The term sometimes is dangerous in the sense that it suggests that the minute a new and innovative technology comes to market there is a divide unless its equitably distributed among every part of the society."

"I think there is Mercedes divide. I'd like to have mine," he added.

With Powell's tenure as the second African-American head of the FCC just beginning, it might be too early to tell how Indian Country will fare under the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell. Technological needs vary reservation to reservation, with such basic services such as phone service out of the reach of many due to cost and infrastructure problems.

But views expressed by Powell, a former FCC commissioner, indicate he will make a number of changes at the agency. He supported deregulation as a necessary means for increasing competition in the industry and suggested the digital divide movement may be incompatible with his goal.

"It's just an unrealistic understanding of an American capitalist system," said Powell on the idea of industry being "forced" to provide technology to everyone regardless of age, income, sex, geographical location, or race.

And while Kennard championed a low-power FM radio program and criticized Congress for passing last-minute legislation in December which limited its reach significantly, Powell said he didn't "really have any view on" the matter. The FCC hoped to issue 1,000 licenses to community groups throughout the country, including a number of American Indian organizations, to enable them to provide local programming but the legislation reduced the number to an estimated 200.

Still, Indian Country might not see much of a change under Powell with the continued presence of commissioner Gloria Tristani. A Hispanic woman with roots in Puerto Rico and New Mexico, Tristani has made bridging the digital divide a top priority.

"During my tenure as an FCC Commissioner, I have been guided by a single principle: ensuring that all Americans benefit from the communications revolution," said Tristani.

The FCC last year also acknowledged its government-to-government relationship with tribes, adopting a tribal consultation policy for the first time in its history.

Relevant Links:
The Federal Communications Commission -
The Digital Divide Network -

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