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REMARKS OF
MICHAEL J. COPPS
COMMISSIONER
FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION
AT
THE 14th BIENNIAL INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE
TELECOMMUNICATIONS FOR THE DEAF, INCORPORATED
SIOUX FALLS, SOUTH DAKOTA
JULY 10, 2001

Thank you for that kind introduction and for inviting me to participate in this conference. This is my very first speech as a Commissioner of the FCC, and I am pleased that it is with a community that understands so well the potential of the communications revolution and one that works so hard to help all of our citizens to realize that potential. I have been looking forward to our discussion today and to talking with you about what we can do Ė togetheróto bring the wonders of the Telecommunications Revolution to every American.

Iím new to my job and Iím excited about it. I think Iíll continue to be excited about it even after itís not so new, because to be an active participant in the deliberations of the FCC as the telecommunications revolution transforms our lives and remakes our world is a privilege few are given. I believe that in telecom, you and I havenít seen anything yet. I believe that the communications transformations of this new 21st century will make the dramatic changes of the past century pale by comparison. We will work differently, learn differently, play differently, and probably even govern ourselves differently, because of the transformative power of telecommunications.

The sobering part of being a commissioner is that the office is a high public trust. Communications is the business of us all. Every great department and agency of government has a traditional group of constituents or clients Ė stakeholders, I call them -- and their input and counsel are critically important to the success of that department or agency. Business is obviously an important stakeholder in this work. But in communications, every American is a stakeholder, because each of us is affected in so many important ways by how the public spectrum is used. Our freedoms, our diversity and our values all come into play. So I am convinced that an important part of being a commissioner is to reach out to non-traditional stakeholders as well as traditional, to ensure that Commission decisions do indeed reflect the public interest. I will be talking more fully about this in the weeks and months ahead, but I want you to know at the outset that the public interest will be my lodestar for so long as I serve as commissioner.

I came here to emphasize another priority of mine. It is an unswerving belief that we, as Americans, progress together or we progress not at all. Our strength is our diversity -- a diversity of races and cultures and creeds and talents and interests that will determine our destiny. Unless we figure out how to harness this amazing wealth of diversity, we will not -- we cannot -- realize our nationís potential.

Many of you in this audience are far ahead of the rest of us in understanding this basic truth. More than that, you have done something about it. You have led the way and made the disability community not only a political force to be reckoned with, but also a social and economic force contributing as never before to the forward march of our great country.

You led the way for the Americans with Disabilities Act. You led the way for Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act, opening the way for 54 million Americans with disabilities to access the marvels of the telecom revolution. You came together to reach out and teach us all, and in the process you contributed mightily to the nationís progress. Closer to home, you have helped us at the FCC to create new rules and procedures and even new offices and structures-- such as the Disability Rights Office and the Consumer Advisory Committee -- so that we can work more effectively together.

So now we look ahead, pleased with the progress that has been made, but ever mindful of the long road we have yet to travel. Itís a new and, in many ways an unfamiliar road, because while the old challenges of education and outreach and traditional obstacles have not disappeared, new challenges, born of technology and economic change, rise up to confront us.

First among these challenges is harnessing the power of the new economy for the benefit of us all. Call it the IT Economy, the Digital Age, the World Wide Web or whatever you will, it is rocketing us into cyberspace at the speed of light. Itís valuable cyberspace, because what we find there are the education and information and commerce and jobs of Americaís future. Those who get there win; those who donít get there lose. I want to contribute to making sure we all get there, and that in the vanguard, traveling at the speed of light, is Americaís disability community.

Epic change brings opportunity -- but it can also be confusing for consumers. And worrisome for you in this particular audience, as you wonder whether the advances in access that you have made over the past years will continue in the 21st century.

I am an optimist. Advances in technology will bring us more accessibility tools -- if we do our jobs right. Advanced products and services will enable people with disabilities to obtain information and to communicate with others in ways that were previously unattainable -- if we do our jobs right. One word of advice: Keep up with this technology. Iím told that somebody in this very audience has said that we need to insist not just on the pots, but on the pans, too: not just the pots of Plain Old Telephone Service, but the Pretty Awesome New Stuff -- the pans -- also. I saw some of the pans right here in your corporate exhibitor displays yesterday. Donít settle for less!

As a one-time historian, I like to search the past for lessons. As all of you know, the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, as well as his father, taught those with hearing disabilities. Bellís invention changed life as we know it. But certain communities, such as those in rural areas, were very often left behind -- more isolated than before and with comparatively fewer economic opportunities. In response, although not nearly so quickly as could have been hoped, we began to tackle the problem. With the public and private sectors working together, we went to work to bring access to basic communications technology to rural communities.

Access to basic telephone services reduced isolation and brought rural communities closer together. And access fostered economic development. President Theodore Rooseveltís Country Life Commission was right on the mark in designating the telephone as a major problem solver for rural America.

Today, having access to advanced communications and information is every bit as important as access to basic telephone services was not so many years ago. The digital tools of the Information Age are the keys to unlocking the doors of opportunity. We must make sure that those doors are open -- and remain open -- for all Americans, and not locked shut for some.

My overriding goal as an FCC Commissioner is to help bring the best, most accessible, and cost-effective telecommunications system in the world to our people Ė and I mean all of our people. Each and every citizen of this great country should have access to the wonders of telecommunications. I donít think it exaggerates much to characterize access to telecommunications in this modern age as a civil right.

Congress recognized the importance of access over a decade ago in the Americans with Disabilities Act, and reiterated this directive in the 1996 Communications Act. Our job is to implement Congressí vision of a world in which those with disabilities have access to functionally equivalent telecommunications services.

I want to commend the previous FCC for the great strides it made to move in this direction.

Thatís an impressive record. But our objective in the new Commission is not to rest on these accomplishments; it is to build on them. The question is: How do we accomplish this? Here are some things "to do."

First, we must follow through on those items I just mentioned. On Telecommunications Relay Services, for example, the Commission just released a Public Notice seeking comment on using the Internet for such services. And we are encouraging a nationwide TRS awareness campaign so that all our citizens can understand the importance of relay services.

I am pleased to announce that on October 10, 2001, the FCC will host a public forum on TRS. This forum will discuss outreach for TRS so that we can expand the user base, and it will discuss new relay technologies, such as Internet relay and video relay services. The forum will include an "open microphone" session so users can share with us their inputs on what more needs to be done. In conjunction with the public forum, we will have a TRS Expo, so people can visit vendor booths and learn more about relay services and new technologies, just as I learned yesterday. I hope that many of you will be able to attend this forum. I hope you can bring community opinion-makers with you so that they can better understand the challenges and the new opportunities that you are encountering. You may even wish to invite your Congressional Representatives and Senators to come share in the excitement and see first-hand what your community is doing to improve not just your lives, but all of our lives.

We are also following through by working with industry to publicize the availability of 711 access in order to reach as many Americans as possible by the October 1 date. So follow-through is obviously key.

Second, as we go about our FCC business, we need to reach out to all the stakeholders on these issues. I alluded to this earlier. You are affected by so much of what we do and, as the new guy on the block, I want to hear from you. You have tremendous advocates in people like Claude Stout, Pam Holmes, Nancy Bloch, Al Sonnenstrahl, Phil Bravin, Ben Soukup, Cheryl Heppner, Toni Dunne and so many others. And I want to hear from you not only on the items immediately important to you, but on the whole wide range of telecom issues, because you are affected by so many of those issues.

Helping us with the outreach efforts I have mentioned is the Commissionís Consumer Information Bureau, which houses our Disability Rights Office. Many of you have worked with Karen Peltz Strauss and Pam Gregory. They do an outstanding job. And we are especially lucky to have with us the newest member of the team Ė and someone who probably needs no introduction Ė Greg Hlibok.

I am also pleased that we have established a Consumer/Disability Telecommunications Advisory Committee. From my days at the Commerce Department, I know first-hand that we benefit greatly from the expertise of such committees, wherein the experts and outside stakeholders come together with the government players to share information and formulate policy recommendations. I do want to thank Judy Harkins, Judy Viera, Andy Lange, Susan Palmer, Dr. Bob Segalman, Rich Ellis and others for their participation on this committee. I plan to listen closely to their input and advice.

Third, we should build public sector Ė private sector partnerships to expand access to communications technology for those with disabilities. Business plays the critical role in innovation and investment to make products accessible. History has shown that incorporating accessibility at the design stage makes good business sense. And industry can only benefit by making products and services accessible to the broadest range of users.

A few months ago, over forty chief executives of high-tech and telecommunications companies pledged to develop and market products and services that are accessible to those with disabilities. I commend these companies and urge others to join our efforts to remove barriers to opportunity.

I spent most of my time at the Commerce Department during the Clinton Administration putting together public sector-private sector partnerships. I am a believer, a true believer, in this kind of cooperative endeavor. In the world of global commerce and competition that I focused on for those eight years, I quickly realized that neither the government nor the private sector alone could make much headway in tackling the challenges we faced. Working together we could, and did, accomplish much more. I am convinced that there is significant room for just this kind of cooperative effort in addressing the major challenges I am finding at the FCC.

Fourth, government must get its own house in order through such actions as making sure that those with disabilities are able to access government information through the Internet or via other information technologies. Unfortunately, as a recent report suggests, many federal government agency web-sites still are not accessible. We can do more and we must do more.

I look at all these challenges, and I see a lot of work to be done. But I believe -- I really do -- that we will get it done. Not just because you care, or the Commission cares, or I care. Weíll get it done because a lot of other people are beginning to care. Iíve seen it close to home.

Let me tell you about a young woman I know. One day, she may even be my daughter-in-law -- if my son plays his cards right. She has been working with students with hearing disabilities and this fall she will enter a masters program at the University of Arizona in Tucson to continue her studies and hone her teaching skills. She is totally committed to this work and already she is making a difference in her studentsí lives. But the other evening she reached beyond even them. My other sonís Boy Scout troop was having a session on career opportunities, and Katie volunteered to speak about hers. She talked about communication with the deaf and hard-of-hearing. She absolutely mesmerized her young audience with her knowledge and her commitment. You should have seen the rapt attention of these young Scouts and their desire to learn to sign. You should have seen the lights go on in their minds. So Katie is not only working directly with people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing, she is doing the outreach necessary to help all of us, as citizens, better understand the challenges we face.

Like Katie, we must each do what we can to ensure that Americans with disabilities are not left behind, as has happened too often in the past. The good news is that more and more of our people -- I think especially our young people -- are beginning to look at it not just as a challenge, but really as an opportunity, as a win-win for everyone. I think, I hope, that there is a new understanding and a new vision taking hold. For me, Iím going to act like there is and do everything I can to build it further and to mobilize it for the job ahead. My hope is that at the end of my time at the FCC, we will be able to say that, together, we moved the ball forward. I look forward to working with you to make it happen.

Thank you very much.