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posted: 3/2/2014 6:02 AM

To grow our future in technology, look to the past

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By Larry Irving, The Root

History doesn't just happen. History starts with a vision.

In the early 1980s, Rep. George "Mickey" Leland, D-Texas, then chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, envisioned a more inclusive telecommunications and media world.

A decade later, Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown recognized that the power of the Internet could unlock a brighter future for our children with better economic and educational opportunities.

Today, our leaders are writing history with critical decisions that will affect the future of the mobile revolution and the transition to all-Internet-based networks.

Leland was weary of seeing stereotypical depictions of blacks and Hispanics in the media and was disappointed at the low rates of minority ownership and employment in the media and telecommunications industries. He understood that media ownership and employment would determine not just how white America saw black people but how black people saw themselves.

Equally important, he knew that electronic media and technology were going to be among the principal drivers of our economy and would present tremendous entrepreneurial opportunities for decades to come. And, being a great politician, he understood one other thing: He knew that times of great disruption bring great opportunity.

The media and telecommunications landscape was undergoing massive disruption in the 1980s. The historic AT&T was broken up into seven "Baby Bells." New competitors such as MCI and Sprint were entering the telecommunications marketplace. Broadcasting was expanding from the three historic networks, and media-ownership opportunities were proliferating. And, perhaps most importantly, the cable-television industry was maturing and expanding.

Leland was a strong supporter of innovation and technological advancement. But he made sure that every industry, even the most innovative industries, knew that his support for their efforts came with a condition: their support for increased opportunities for minorities and women.

Leland fought for changes in the way minorities were portrayed by television broadcasters and movie producers; he drove the Federal Communications Commission to establish linkup and lifeline programs to increase telephone penetration rates in low-income communities; he fought for and won increased opportunities for ownership of radio and television stations by minorities; and, perhaps most importantly, he wrote legislation codifying increased employment and vendor opportunities for minorities in the cable-television industry. Those equal employment opportunity provisions became the model for other media industries, including the broadcasting industry.

Over the past 30 years, hundreds of thousands of minorities and women employees of media companies, in addition to thousands of cable vendors, benefited from Leland's hard work and vision. While the media and telecommunications industries are not as diverse as they could be, vast strides have been made as a result of Leland's vision and leadership.

Brown similarly understood the power of disruptive technology. He was a central figure in the Clinton administration's policy formulations in the early days of the Internet, and he understood that the Internet was the transformative technology of its day. But he also understood that the Internet would only matter-would only be judged a clear success-if it benefited all Americans.

Shortly after Brown took office, a group of White House staffers presented him a list of proposed nominees for a Clinton administration private-sector advisory committee on the Internet. Brown looked at the list and noted that of the 25 suggested nominees, 22 were white males. He told the White House staff to take the list back and return with a more inclusive and diverse slate of nominees. When a White House staffer replied that the list had been "vetted and cleared by the White House," Brown said, "Yes, and now it's been vetted and rejected by the secretary of commerce who has to chair and manage that advisory committee." The list was resubmitted with more diversity and a much-improved ratio of women and minorities on the committee.

The inclusion of women and minorities wasn't just window dressing Brown knew that we were at another technological inflection point. When he took office, fewer than 2 million people worldwide were on the Internet. The secretary knew that the Internet would grow and become ever more important. By ensuring diversity on the advisory committee, he made certain that as this high-powered group of individuals made policy suggestions to the president, they were looking at how this important new technology would affect and benefit all Americans and all American communities.

Brown was a firm supporter of the e-rate proposal that provided low-cost Internet connectivity to schools and libraries across America. He worked to develop policies and establish grant programs designed to connect schools, libraries, hospitals and rural health clinics. It's a straight line from Brown's commitment to connecting schools to the Internet two decades ago to the ConnectEd program the Obama administration supports today. Brown understood that, particularly in the early days of the Internet, millions of Americans would have their first experience with the Web in public institutions, and he fought to ensure those institutions had the resources they needed to serve their public.

Perhaps most importantly, he understood that there was a "digital divide," and that it was the role of government to assist industry in bridging that divide. The digital divide would have been deeper and more pervasive but for Brown.

It is his signature on the front page of the first report defining the digital divide and stating that we, as a nation, have an obligation to ensure that all Americans have access to essential technological tools. He knew that with government and industry working together and with the formulation of smart policies, we could drive Internet connectivity rates higher. In slightly more than two decades, we have gone from 2 million people with access to the Internet to almost 3 billion people having access worldwide. Much of that growth is the result of the vision and the work of Ron Brown.

Today we are at another technological inflection point, another time of great disruption. The mobile revolution and the so-called "IP transition" promise to be even more disruptive than the cable revolution and the Internet revolution. And they promise to provide great opportunity for the smart and the agile. Women and men of vision must step forward to embrace these twin revolutions and work to ensure that these new technological tools are used to improve education, increase access to health care and fitness tools and provide for greater productivity and economic opportunity for our community.

Leland and Brown, both of whom later died in plane crashes doing work abroad, understood the power of technology to transform our image of ourselves, to enhance economic and educational opportunities and to ensure the future of our children. As we enter this next new phase of technological development, it is our obligation to further their twin visions.

The best way to celebrate Black History Month is to create some history of our own. Fast-tracking the move to modern, high-speed broadband networks, while ensuring that core consumer values are protected, will lay the foundation for even greater progress with education, health care, entrepreneurship, energy and the environment. We must understand and embrace new technologies and the opportunities they provide us. That's what Leland and Brown would have done.

• Irving, founding co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance, served for almost seven years as assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information and administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). He is widely credited with coining the term "the digital divide" and sparking global interest in the issue.

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