FCC's Geoffrey Starks: In Search of Digital Equity

Federal Communications Commission member Geoffrey Starks has made digital diversity the central issue of his tenure on the commission. He could have a lot more to say about how that happens if Democratic candidate Joe Biden claims the White House in November, either as a majority commissioner or perhaps even in the big chair.

Starks was assistant bureau chief in the FCC's Enforcement Bureau, which is not a typical launching pad for a commission seat like, say, serving as a communications counsel on Capitol Hill would be, although the most recent Republican addition, Brendan Carr, came directly from the FCC as well. 

Like FCC chairman Ajit Pai, Starks grew up in Kansas, though Kansas City rather than a small town, which may explain why he says the FCC needs to pay more attention to the urban digital divide.

Starks is also a former staffer to then-Sen. Barack Obama and a former attorney with Williams & Connolly in Washington. His Obama-era government service included serving under Attorney General Eric Holder at the Justice Department as the lead on financial and healthcare fraud. He has also started a community bank.

The soft-spoken Starks — who, if he boasted, could do so about graduating from Harvard (with High Honors) and Yale Law School — talked with Multichannel News about what the FCC needs to do to help create a more inclusive and equitable communications world given that, for one example, the number of minority TV station owners is within hailing distance of zero.

Geoffrey Starks

(Image credit: Steve Balderson)

MCN: You recently told Congress, ‘In the wake of the larger movement for racial justice, the commission must do its part to advance policies that center our most marginalized and create opportunities internally to ensure we have more diverse voices at the table.’ How does the FCC do that, and what specific policies are you talking

Geoffrey Starks: Issues of equity and justice are more prominent than ever, and so I have called on the FCC to do its part, including creating an initiative that I announced with the chairman, the FCC Early Career Staff Diversity Initiative.

MCN: What does that do?

GS: It does a couple things I am proud of. First, it is going to more formally recruit from HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities] for what are entry points for a lot of FCC employees: the honors attorney program and the honors engineering program. And it will recruit from those HBCUs for internships, again, where a lot of folks get résumé points for coming to the FCC and showing an interest in tech and telecom issues. So, I think that will help the larger diversity initiative. 

I have also known a number of candidates who are not able to take an unpaid internship. So, I think it is important that the FCC, in order to get some of that best talent, offer a paid internship. 

This is about equity and fairness and the fact that the communications sector needs to better reflect the diversity of people across the country. I am glad that when I brought the proposal to the chairman he agreed to work with me to make this happen. 

MCN: Is this needed because the FCC is not diverse enough, or is it more about diversity in the communications industry writ large?

GS: I think both. I don’t know with granularity what the FCC’s diversity numbers are. I don’t think that is my point here. But I have seen in the tech and telecom space a need for increased diversity. That is something I have been thinking of for a long time.

We need to have a cross-section and a diverse set of voices that are going to help the telecom sector enter the future in the best way. We need to make sure we are hearing from and reaching talent in all segments.

MCN: Talk about the tax certificate policy [giving station owners a tax break for selling to minorities] that everyone seems to support but
Congress has yet to reinstate?

GS: I strongly support it. If you look back at the numbers from [just before] the program was done away with and you see what has happened ever since, the number of minority broadcast owners — both women and folks of color — has plummeted.

Legislation has been introduced by Congressman [G.K.] Butterfield [D-N.C.] and I am hopeful that it will move swiftly. Out of the 1,300 full-power broadcast TV stations out there, 12 of them are owned by African-Americans. What that means is that, if you were rounding, you would round that down to 0% rather than up to 1%. We have to do better.

Out of the 1,300 full power broadcast TV stations out there, 12 of them are owned by African-Americans. What that means is that if you were rounding you would round that to 0% rather than up to 1%. So we have to do better.

FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks

MCN: Do you think the FCC can do anything but nibble around the edges on broadcast-ownership diversity, and would it make more sense to focus on broadband access rather than continue to fight that battle?

GS: This gets down to the core mission of the FCC, which includes localism and diversity along with those public licenses. Broadcasters are allowed to use these licenses because they serve the public interest in a lot of ways.

We do know that millions of Americans still rely on these traditional forms of broadcasting. Certainly there is no way to dispute that the internet has revolutionized how people receive information. But it is important that we continue to focus on diversity of those who hold our broadcast licenses.

That is not to say that the second part of your question isn’t also equally important. 

Again, back to the point that I started out with, issues of equity have never been more important. I think that includes digital equity.

MCN: Talk about digital equity.

GS: You may have noticed that in my very first speech [as a commissioner] I talked about the digital divide as something that has calcified into what I call ‘internet inequality,’ and I have continued to call it that. And so issues of digital equity and making sure that we close that divide and focus on the foils that still remain disconnected has never been more important than now. 

I think making sure there is that democratizing force to the internet includes making sure digital equity is a component of that.

MCN: We have had conversations both with former FCC chairman Michael Powell and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and they pointed out that Black people were not in the room when broadcast licenses were handed out and secondary market deals made, and that being in that room is important to having power to set the media agenda. What do you think about chairman Pai’s incubator program [with established owners helping foster new minority owners]. Do you support that?

GS: The program is part of the Prometheus litigation [Prometheus Radio Project v. FCC] that is back now before the FCC. A number of civil-rights organizations, including MMTC [The Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council], that originally came up with the incubator program did not ultimately support the way the chairman executed that. 

I think the real point is that from the boardroom to who is in front of the camera to who is behind the camera to who produces content, all of this has to better reflect the diversity of America.

MCN: Let’s say that there is a changing of the guard in November. What should the priorities for a Biden administration FCC be?

GS: So, first, I do not speak for the Biden campaign, full stop. These are my personal views on what I would like to see reflected in a Biden FCC.

The pandemic has made very clear that what was a digital divide has now become a COVID-19 divide. There are millions of Americans who are out of work; millions of Americans who need telehealth; millions of Americans who, much like me, are educating young learners and college students — I have a young learner here at home — powered by the internet.

The main focus needs to be getting everyday Americans connected. 

When you are talking about who has internet access, there are a disproportionate number of communities of color who do not have that fixed home broadband connection. We have got to do better and institute policies that are going to better reflect connecting those left behind.

MCN: And that includes making broadband more affordable.

GS: Affordability is something I have consistently stressed. 

This FCC has focused almost exclusively on the issue of rural access, and as a native Kansan that is important to me and to communities that I know need help. But the fact of the matter is that we have nearly three times as many households in urban areas that remain unconnected. When you pair that with the fact that Pew Research shows that over 18 million households lack broadband simply because it is too expensive, and we are quickly coming to the realization that there are a lot of folks who are going to need a $10 or $11 or $12 internet. 

So, I think affordability is something you will see reflected in a Democratic administration so some of those folks not adopting the internet will go ahead and adopt it.

I also think that Lifeline [the FCC-administered broadband subsidy for low-income Americans] has to meet the moment. One thousand minutes and 3 gigs of data is something for a different era. It would be laughable if it weren’t real. It needs to be updated.

And only about 7½ million Americans, or about 20% of the 38 million that are eligible, actually have a Lifeline subscription. We have to make more folks aware of the Lifeline program and better effectuate that program.

MCN: Talking about educating people, what is your take on the E-Rate subsidy [for schools and libraries], and how it should be used in a pandemic?

GS: The E-Rate subsidy has got to do more. Families are turning to the internet to virtually teach their kids. Where is the classroom right now? It’s in the home. [Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser] has filed a petition asking us to temporarily waive some of our rules. I think that has a lot of merit. We need to make sure that we are connecting learners where they are.

MCN: Do you think a waiver is needed, or do you disagree with chairman Pai that E-Rate can’t now be used for home broadband or equipment because the statute says it is for schools and libraries?

GS: I vehemently disagree with the chairman’s reading. I think you can read the statute right now to allow us to meet the moment. 

MCN: Your name is in the mix for chairman. Any interest?

GS: No comment.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.