November 02, 2007

A Real Contract Welcoming Hispanics into the Digital Age

By Reverend Miguel Rivera

On the heels of massive protests across the nation earlier this year against the Administration’s failed immigration proposal, one would have thought our government had heard the message loud and clear that minorities, particularly Hispanic Americans, should not be batted around in any of Washington’s familiar parlor games.

But actions as of late at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission have given us a moment of pause. A little observed regulatory proceeding taking place at the FCC would forbid exclusive contracts between video providers and owners of apartment complexes and other “Multi-Dwelling Units” (or, MDUs).

Although the FCC has draped this issue in the mantle of ‘competition,’ its startling how some inside the Commission fail to appreciate how this order will do away with many of the valuable discounts for inner-city renters that come from today’s intense competition for these apartment building contracts.

The FCC’s apparent disregard for the interests of low-income and minority residents – particularly in metropolitan areas – on this and other several key telecommunications issues is deeply troubling.

Those in the urban faith community – including our group that represents 16,000 churches around the nation – witness first-hand just how difficult life can be in inner-city areas, particularly for first generation immigrants. However, increased competition in urban areas for certain services such as cable TV and Internet can lower prices. For example, video service providers compete fiercely for exclusive contracts with apartment buildings, which gives the apartment owners more leverage to demand lower prices, better customer service and other special deals.

The perks included in these contracts are important selling points for apartment buildings in low-income neighborhoods where residents wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford cable TV or broadband services. In return, cable providers are willing to invest in areas that would otherwise be high risk. Well-respected housing and construction organizations like National Association of Realtors, the Building Owners and Managers Association International and the National Association of Home Builders have endorsed such win-win arrangements.

That’s why the FCC’s opposition to exclusive MDU contracts strikes an absurd note. Wiping these advantageous agreements off the books – without even inquiring as to the impact on relevant groups like low-income apartment tenants – would take cash directly out of the pockets of the families that need it most. Eliminating these contracts could also widen the digital divide by putting broadband access out of reach for many low-income renters.

Unfortunately, the FCC has recently let loose a steady stream of policies that are openly antagonistic to Latino and other minority communities. Against significant political opposition, the Chairman continues to beat the drum for a la carte rules, which almost every independent study has shown would starve minority programming on cable TV.

Meanwhile, some inside the FCC have proposed regulations that would chew up valuable channel space on cable TV, crowding out new Latino programmers that hope to reach wider audiences as we switch to digital television. Moreover, most in the minority and civil rights community feel that the Commission’s close-fisted offer to rent channel space on broadcast TV as it simultaneously shuts down minority ownership on cable is a patronizing slap in the face.

Before taking another regulatory step, the FCC would be wise to take a walk through our neighborhoods, consult with our leaders and learn the faces of the people affected by such policies. On the brink of the new opportunities offered by digital television and the exploding broadband market, more than ever we need positive FCC leadership that ensures that everyone reaps the benefits.

Reverend Miguel Rivera is the President of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy & Christian Leaders. The Coalition represents 16,000 churches in 32 states.

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