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Digital Equity Rules Must Go Beyond Intent to Impact, Says MMTC

computer user
(Image credit: Katleho Seisa /Getty Images)

The Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC) is telling the FCC not to limit rules prohibiting digital inequity only to discriminate or to conclude that because it is available, it is accessible.

That view of discrimination is a different tack from AT&T and wireless ISPs, which told the FCC this week that intent should be a determining factor.

Both MMTC and AT&T were filing comments in the FCC's congressionally directed proceeding, which must come up with regulations preventing discrimination based on "income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion and national origin."

"[I]f the Commission were to adopt rules that only looked to the intent of the actor and their disparate treatment of subscribers, the Commission would capture a very small subset of the discrimination that subscribers often face," MMTC told the FCC.

MMTC also wants the FCC to take a broad view of "equal access" that goes beyond technical quality of service -- speed, latency, etc. --to non-technical issues that extend to evidence of disparate treatment.

MMTC says the FCC should define the statute's equal opportunity to subscribe from a consumer perspective and should look beyond whether comparable services on comparable terms and conditions are available.

MMTC also says mere "availability" is not equity if the cost prohibits its adoption in low-income or minority neighborhoods.

"Given that there are multiple barriers from multiple actors preventing Americans from actually accessing the internet, the Commission must be careful to not conflate broadband availability with broadband access," MMTC says.

MMTC says when the FCC looks at the "other quality of service metrics" that must be equitably provided, according to Congress, it should look at procurement, transactions and advertising policies.

The group also says the FCC needs to act with dispatch. "All told, it may be several years before final rules in this proceeding become effective, unless the Commission acts expeditiously," it warns. "It is important to complete this rulemaking with a sense of urgency, as it will create important protections for those who are being left behind as the world moves more and more online."

How quickly the FCC can act is somewhat circumscribed by process requirements, including vetting the responses to its inquiry, then deciding on whether to proceed on a rulemaking, which must then be noticed and public comment solicited, as MMTC recognizes. Then there is the Office of Management and Budget, which must review and sign-off on any rules that require additional data collection. ■

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.