Leroy Jones, Jr. is the creator of Talking Technology with Leroy Jones, Jr.

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FCC: Brand New Hope

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Now that this year's Consumer Electronics Show is over, the tech press gets to engage in its favorite pastime of picking the show's winning products.  There's CNN's "Coolest Tech Products from CES," CNet's "Hottest Products" and Wired's "10 Sharpest Designs."


But this focus on neat designs and thin screens misses a bigger and more important issue: the rapidly accelerating use of "fifth generation" mobile broadband technology that underpins these revolutionary products.  Our national transformation to 5G is moving faster than even the most optimistic predictions a year ago. New mobile technology is powering advances from self-driving cars to connected health care.


This is important given next week's change in Administrations, particularly the FCC's coming leadership changes. The wireless marketplace is once again proving itself a dynamic and competitive industry that in 2015 alone attracted $32 billion in capital investment.


That investment translated into jobs - lots of jobs. According to a 2016 jobs survey, the mobile app economy last year employed 1.66 million Americans - or about the entire population of Philadelphia -- up from about 750,000 in 2013.


Hopefully, the magnitude of these numbers gives the new Administration's FCC appointees pause as they look to support the mobile economy. Continued growth in jobs and wireless investment is not preordained. In fact, if the capex numbers from 2016 are any indication, wireless investment actually dropped about 10% compared to 2015.


A major reason for this decline is almost certainly the FCC's 2015 decision to regulate mobile broadband like a public utility, a move that deserves an immediate burial, as Republican Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael Reilly have both urged.


But correcting mistakes made by the current FCC is only part of the solution.  The new FCC should focus on helping spur faster deployment of 5G mobile.  That means helping the industry, where possible, with the setting of 5G standards.  It means paying greater attention to reducing impediments to broadband deployment.


Most of all, it means becoming more of a partner to the mobile industry instead of trying to dictate to it.  That was the current FCC's key failing - specifically, a lack of appreciation for how technology and consumer demand are changing the mobile industry.


In December, the Center for Disease Control released figures showing that 49% of U.S. households are considered "wireless only," and nearly 65% are what the authors call "wireless mostly."


Clearly, the mobile revolution in the form of advanced 5G technology is poised to bring benefits across the country.  But this change still needs FCC help. New commissioners and staff should recognize the 5G promise and the benefits to be had from more cooperative policy stances.



Set-Top Box: Open?

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The word "open" has a puzzling meaning at the FCC these days.

In February, when FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed regulating pay TV set-top boxes, he said the effort was to promote "openness."  Multiple times, he talked of new "open standards" and "opening up" pay TV viewing through a process to "openly license" programming.

That plan crashed for many reasons, primarily its prohibitive cost and potential to harm quality programming. Two subsequent versions this summer also failed for the same reasons.

So now, the Chairman is doing something truly puzzling: Rather than seek help from outside experts to create a more viable and affordable plan, he and his staff are once again revising their proposal in total secrecy.  

That means no input from the public to determine viewing trends.  No input from technology experts. No input from programmers. No input from media licensing experts.  And finally, no input from civil rights groups concerned about the impact on African-American, Latino and other minority programs.

The collective opposition from all these groups helped sink the first three FCC proposals - and deservedly so. Those plans were vague and conflicting. Rather than spurring progress on ways to give viewers the shows they want, when they want them, those FCC proposals would have gone in the opposite direction.

Especially noteworthy, more than 200 Members of Congress from both parties aired concerns, including large numbers from the Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucuses. And just last week, Members of Congress joined civil rights leaders at the National Urban League (NUL) and League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in calling for transparency from the FCC.

Moreover, in addition to the proposals' potential harm to minority programming, there was significant concern over the missing protections of consumer viewing privacy. Ask yourself: Would you be comfortable if some nameless company sold information about everything you and your family, including your children, watched on TV?  Without your approval?

The FCC's effort to rewrite this plan - for the 4th time in 8 months - in the same insular way brings to mind the saying that insanity is doing the same thing again and again but expecting a different result. The Commission is right to want to create a more accessible pay TV framework but the way it's going about this is clearly flawed. 

On an issue this important, the FCC should accept the need to solicit views from outside. Technology and viewer habits are both changing rapidly. If the Commission is going to regulate pay TV distribution, it should at least do it with flexibility and an eye toward tomorrow's reality.  That's not too much to ask given Chairman Wheeler's repeated comments about the need for more "openness."

Minority Media Programming: FCC & Set-Top Boxes

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Until last week, a proposal by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate pay TV set-top boxes had several Member of Congress and TV industry leaders concerned. Announced this past February, the proposal threatened to rip up programmers' copyrights and harm their ability to thrive in the video market.

With this proposal, the Commission was allowing large tech companies to take video content from programmers without paying for it and redistributing it over their own devices.  Such an intervention into the marketplace would especially put small minority programmers at a disadvantage.

But last week, there was a glimmer of hope.  During a Congressional hearing, two Commissioners publicly agreed that the February proposal had major problems. Among its crucial flaws, said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, is its lack of adequate copyright protection.  Fellow Democrat Mignon Clyburn added that these protections "must be in place" before any rules are finalized.

The Commissioners' public hesitation is good news for strengthening media diversity. It also caps nearly a year of progressively louder complaints from across the African-American community. Among the leaders was Congresswoman Yvette Clarke (D-NY), who brought together 53 Members of Congress on this issue earlier this year.  As the FCC's proposal was taking shape, she and her colleagues warned of "irreparable harm to independent and minority programmers" who would see their programming relegated "to the bottom of the pile."

As this debate wore on, more and more minority leaders, especially in media, began recognizing the stakes for our community. The CEO of Revolt Media, Keith Clinkscales, warned that the FCC's proposal would "drive up costs and eliminate the need for minority programming."

With complaints streaming in from over 200 Members of Congress and several people from the video industry and minority communities, it's good to see the FCC rethink its proposal. 

Even better, the TV industry recently put forward a proposal that would protect programmers' content while providing new choices for consumers.  Under this proposal, programmers could provide apps to set-top box manufacturers and streaming services. Furthermore, consumers would be able to access these apps on any device that they want.

What took place at last week's hearing shows a lot of promise for the future of minority programmers and the video marketplace overall.  The FCC should move forward with a proposal that reflects that framework outlined by industry leaders.  It's the best way to ensure minority programmers can continue to grow their businesses and create new quality shows for consumers.



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