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The brief, ridiculously productive reign of FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn

The brief, ridiculously productive reign of FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn


The interim boss tackled a huge workload in her six-month stint

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Mignon Clyburn
Mignon Clyburn

All too often, Washington, DC is a place defined more by its bureaucracy, pragmatism, and paralyzing partisanship than its ability to move the game ball forward. And frequently, the FCC — responsible broadly for our nation’s radio, telephone, and internet infrastructure — is the poster child for some of Capitol Hill’s deepest problems, torn between the needs of the people and the interests of the hundred billion-dollar corporations it’s chartered to regulate. The result is that things don’t always get done in a timely fashion. And when they do, the decisions made don’t necessarily have citizens foremost in mind.

That’s what has made Mignon Clyburn’s fleeting moment in the chairperson’s seat such a refreshing change of pace. Tapped to lead the FCC in the gap between Julius Genachowski’s departure and former lobbyist Tom Wheeler’s confirmation, she didn't just sit back and keep the seat warm for Wheeler. Instead, she used the opportunity to launch two hugely important new blocks of wireless spectrum, fix a long-running technical problem between AT&T's network and smaller carriers, and close one of the biggest telecom deals in history — all while dealing with an unprecedented 16-day government shutdown.

It didn't hurt that Clyburn was already a political insider, having been brought on to the FCC's three-person commission by President Obama in 2009. And the South Carolinian is no stranger to navigating bureaucracy both inside and outside the beltway: she’s the daughter of Representative Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and a former chairwoman of her state’s Public Service Commission.

No stranger to navigating bureaucracy

Still, her productivity this year has been a little surprising considering the delicate, pragmatic language she used when she stepped out at CTIA in May, joking that a flight to Vegas (where CTIA was held) isn’t in line with an interim chairperson’s job to avoid risk. Yet in June, Clyburn was already jumping into action at her first commission meeting as boss, announcing licensing for the so-called H Block, 10MHz of precious spectrum in the same PCS range used by all four national carriers. (The auction for the H Block has more recently been set for January of next year.) New spectrum in a frequency range that can be readily employed by wireless carriers for broadband data is a rarity, and when the FCC announces an auction for it, it’s a milestone event. And in July, it laid down a proposal for selling off a bundle of spectrum known as AWS-3, a band that’s been in limbo since former chairman Kevin Martin tried to turn it into a pornography-free, no-cost wireless internet service several years ago.

Just days later, Clyburn’s FCC signed off on an epic three-way transaction transferring control of Clearwire to Sprint and Sprint to Japan’s SoftBank, giving the nation’s third-largest carrier the support (and cash) it needed to bolster flagging operations. That transaction eventually led to the recent announcement of Spark, a multi-band LTE network that Sprint promises could deliver speeds of up to 60Mbps. To be sure, the decision under previous FCC chairman Julius Genachowski to block AT&T’s purchase of T-Mobile USA was just as important — if not more so — but he did so in a four-year tenure. For Clyburn, the decision to approve or reject one of the largest deals in telecommunications history fell on her commission less than two months into a six-month lame duck stint.

Clyburn also oversaw the creation of new rules for phone calls that inmates make from prisons, the culmination of a decade-long fight with service providers where monopolies and a captive audience (literally) have led to absurdly high rates — rates that, as the FCC pointed out in an August ruling, prevented some low-income families from staying connected. Clyburn’s commission capped the per-minute rate for long distance from prison phones, tying fees to market rates; previously, many prisoners had been paying multiple dollars simply to make a connection. In the wake of the ruling, some providers are threatening to sue the FCC.

700MHz interoperability was an especially big win for her

At times, it seemed as though Clyburn was looking to solve virtually every controversy on the FCC’s plate — a tall order for an organization that attracts it almost constantly. She sounded support for wireless customers to be able to legally unlock their phones. Under her charge, the Commission put a pause to Verizon’s controversial plan to discontinue landline service on New York’s Fire Island and replace it entirely with cellular. And, perhaps most incredibly of all, she helped usher in 700MHz interoperability, a sticky issue that has plagued smaller carriers for years.

And with just days to go until Wheeler’s swearing in to office, Clyburn oversaw a set of actions aimed at completely overhauling (and saving) AM radio, and — practically on her way out of the door — a proposal to dump federal sports blackout rules, the bane of TV-watching football and baseball fans everywhere.

Now, what will Wheeler do?

Wheeler, of course, has a far longer term ahead of him as he takes over today. But skepticism of his desire to move the Commission swiftly in consumers’ favor as Clyburn did is understandably high: he comes from organizations representing the wireless and cable industries, neither of which have a sterling reputation in the public eye.

While the jury is still out on how Wheeler will shape the country’s telecom policy, Clyburn — much to the delight of many — remains on board as a commissioner until 2017. And her industrious moment at the helm hasn’t been lost on DC insiders. "In her short stint as the chair of the FCC, Clyburn worked to further the public interest and protect consumers," Public Knowledge said in a statement. "We look forward to continuing our work with Clyburn as she resumes her position as a commissioner of the FCC."