The Federal Communications Commission – a government agency responsible for monitoring media – has appointed the first African-American woman as its chairwoman. Mignon Clyburn, 51, is temporarily leading the FCC as President Obama’s nominee, Tom Wheeler, awaits Congressional approval. She may remain in the position for several months and have major impact within her short tenure.
Clyburn assumed the role on May 20 at 12:01 a.m. and immediately addressed her staff and peers at the commission.
“While we may face many challenges in the days and weeks ahead, by working together, we will continue to do great things,” she said. “Continuity and progress: the hallmarks, the building blocks, of a great time, great people and a great agency.”
Clyburn realizes she won’t be in the position long, but hopes to progress the agency during her brief time there.
“I assume the role of acting chair, with a great sense of responsibility, but also great humility, and as we await the confirmation of Tom Wheeler, I see myself as a member of a relay team, running one of the middle legs,” she said. “My job is to build on forward momentum, give the next teammate a running start, an improved position, and no matter what, my goal is not to drop the baton.”
Clyburn, who’s been with the FCC since August 2009, will oversee several major projects including the Softbank-Sprint deal and the auctioning of wave spectrums used to broadcast television and radio programming.
She is being pressured by some companies and public interest groups to ensure that the nation’s two biggest wireless companies, Verizon and AT&T, can’t gobble up all the airwaves that will eventually go on sale in the upcoming incentive auction.
The auction, which will move some broadcasters off their current TV channels, then sell those airwaves to the highest bidder for advanced wireless uses, isn’t scheduled to occur before 2014, but a half-dozen companies and public interest groups are already pushing her to limit how many frequencies Verizon and AT&T can hold.
In addition, the FCC’s informal merger “shot clock” on SoftBank’s deal to buy a controlling interest in Sprint is also set to expire. DISH wants the commission to suspend consideration of the SoftBank deal until the Sprint board has had time to consider DISH’s competing offer for the company.
Free Press President Craig Aaron sees Clyburn’s appointment as a step in the right direction, but not the end of the race.
“Chairwoman Clyburn’s appointment is a reminder that there are still many barriers to overcome at the FCC,” he told Politico. “We look forward to the day when ‘acting’ does not precede the title of the next FCC chairwoman.”
Public Knowledge President Gigi Sohn sees Clyburn’s role as noteworthy and historic.
“She’s still an historic figure,” she said. “She’s the first woman and the first African-American woman, to hold the reins of the agency. I can understand the disappointment that President Obama didn’t name the first woman permanent chair, but I wish there was a little more joy in her appointment.”
Several advocacy groups were pressuring Obama to nominate a woman to the position, including 50 national organizations that signed a letter to the White House. However, the president’s administration chose Wheeler, a white male with an extensive background in media lobbying.
A White House official speaking on anonymity told a Reuters reporter that Wheeler is an ideal candidate for the position.
“Tom Wheeler is an experienced leader in the communications technology field who shares the president’s commitment to protecting consumers, promoting innovation, enhancing competition and encouraging investment,” he said.