Good afternoon. For three months, I have been Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and I'm having a great time. The best part of this job is having the opportunity to go out and talk with many Americans from all walks of life and all backgrounds about communications. It's energizing to me and a tremendous boost because Americans outside of Washington don't talk about the technology or regulation of communications. They talk about how communications is transforming their lives.
So today I don't want to talk about the technology of communications, but about how technology is transforming the life of our country. Because there is no question that it is. The important question is: how, for whom, and will it change us for the better?
Sometimes it's helpful to look back in history to times when people were asking similar questions -- in the hope that we can learn from them.
One such time was the World's Fair, in New York, in 1939.
The hit of that Fair was the General Motors exhibit called "Futurama." Visitors to the Fair stood in line for hours, so they could step onto a moving sidewalk and travel above this model of what General Motors called "greater opportunities for all." They saw miniature highways, with little cars driving along them past farms to the cities. Around the cities they saw expressways and elevated freeways that would let cars drive a hundred miles an hour -- and city streets bringing, what the exhibit said would be "space, sunshine, light and air."
Well, of course, over the next fifty years, we did see that system come to pass. But not exactly how it was envisioned in 1939.
The great federal interstate highway projects of the post World War II era certainly transformed America. They accellerated the flow of commerce. They allowed Americans to get more products faster and cheaper. The huge investment we made in those highway systems helped connect communities and make them more prosperous. It brought a wholesale transformation to our lives.
But it wasn't without cost.
The same system transported jobs to the suburbs from the inner city. And inner city residents were agonizingly aware that while there might be jobs 15 or 20 miles away -- good jobs, too -- you couldn't get to them unless you had a car, and unless the highway had an offramp into your neighborhood.
But no one truly believed that we shouldn't build the highway system. We just had to do it in a way that benefited all Americans.
Today we're a little like those people at the World's Fair.
This time we're looking at the Information Superhighway.
It can bring us even closer together as a nation. Or it can divide us. It can connect small and rural communities to the world of commerce and culture. Or it can leave some of them behind. It may be the most important factor in the economic development of our time.
And so, while all of us think the Information Superhighway is a good thing, it presents us with a special responsibility.
It's to make sure that this booming revolution -- an $800 billion industry last year alone -- is an inclusive one. That it creates opportunities for participation by all Americans. That it provides jobs and access and a chance for ownership for everybody.
On some issues, our goals are straightforward:
Providing choice for residential consumers.
Providing affordable rates -- and rates that are the same whether in Anacostia or Potomac, Brooklyn, New York, or Brooklyn, Iowa.
Fostering increased investment in developing high-capacity bandwidth to cope with the burgeoning need for transmission capacity.
Today, though, let me use the next few minutes to touch on our needs in two areas.
Rural health care providers, and schools and libraries.
First, rural issues.
This year, we must finish implementing a mechanism to continue universal service support for rural and high cost areas.
There will be many difficult issues to resolve. Some are factual -- for example, how much does it really cost to build a network to serve rural America?
Others involve the difficult interplay of fact, judgement and ideology. What should that network deliver? And what is the appropriate allocation of responsibilities between the states? That is -- when is it fair to call upon lower cost states to shoulder more of the burden, and how much responsibility must high cost states bear for funding universal service within their own borders?
I want to introduce to you today, Sonja Rifken. She's the new Rural Coordinator for the FCC. She is my eyes and ears on rural issues. You should get to know her -- and she wants to get to know you. Take her number down. It's 202/418-1500.
Meanwhile, let me outline some of the principles that will guide us as we hammer out issues that affect Americans living in those communities of less than 10,000 people.
First, we must be sensitive to the special difficulties posed by providing service to four customers a square mile instead of the average for Baby Bells: 330. Rural carriers have higher switching costs. They have higher loop-related costs. And they have less demand.
Rural carriers may also be more vulnerable to competitors that skim the cream by taking away their large, multiline users.
We need to be sensitive to the special needs of rural carriers in adopting regulatory changes -- as we move away from implicit to explicit subsidies and from regulated monopoly to competitive market.
So, let me make something absolutely clear.
The 1996 Act recognizes that it's our job to see that rural communities are not left behind on the Information Highway.
Our guiding principle for universal service is that people on farms, on towns with one main street, on reservations, all get comparable service and comparable rates to people living in Manhattan or Chicago.
That goes for telecommunications services.
That goes for information services.
That goes for interexchange service and advanced services.
That's what universal service means and we aim to see that Americans have it.
Now, whether you grew up in a farm community like my mother, or a big city like my father, the issue of schools and libraries affects everyone.
For two reasons.
Second . . . jobs.
More and more, Americans live and work in a knowledged-based economy.
In 1939, when Americans were marvelling at the prospect of those superhighways, you could make a good living without much education. You could get a job on an assembly line in Michigan making Fords, or in Pittsburgh, making steel, or in Minnesota mining iron ore -- and if you were willing to work hard you could do well.
Not any more.
Now, you succeed because of what you know, how you manage information and how we organize ourselves to deliver it.
I have seen this firsthand. This past Monday, I visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Atlanta. I was there for the inauguration of a computer lab for the school.
I was with some people from Oracle, the computer company. One of them told me how many high-tech jobs they have and what a hard time they have filling them. "People apply. But they don't have the training we need," he said.
Then we walked into this school and talked to the kids. I talked to one kid who logged onto our FCC Website and started reading about me. I talked to a girl from Vietnam who told me how much she loved the computer because she can send e-mail messages to her relatives in Vietnam -- and how she likes to download an English-language program to bring home to help her family learn English on the home computer.
And I thought, here is where Oracle needs to go. These kids need Oracle. Oracle needs them.
And what's true in Atlanta is true all over America.
In fact, within two years, 60% of the jobs available to Americans will require information technology skills. And these high-tech jobs pay on average 73% more in wages than non-high tech jobs.
The three fastest-growing and highest paying occupations?
All computer related: computer scientists, computer engineers, and systems analysts. From now until 2005, an average of 95,000 new computer scientists, systems analysts, and computer programmers will be needed every year.
How do we ensure that these jobs are open to everybody?
More to the point, how do we ensure that the great bulk of Americans who are not computer programmers get the training they need to be eligible for the good jobs of the 21st Century?
In order to do that, we have to make sure all our children are prepared the way those kids in Atlanta are being prepared.
This takes on some urgency because in addition to the telecommunications revolution, America is undergoing a second revolution, not as well noticed: the revolution of race.
The Washington Post pointed that out last week in an article called "The Myth of the Melting Pot."
In 1908, when a Jewish playwright, Israel Zangwill wrote his play "The Melting Pot" that gave rise to the term, America was absorbing millions of immigrants. They were Irish. They were German. They were Jews from Eastern Europe. They were almost entirely white.
Today, we also have a great waves of immigrants from around the world. They come from Mexico. From the Philippines. From China, and Cuba, India, Vietnam. And, like all of the immigrants before them, they will make our country strong. And even stronger if we embrace them and their children and give them the tools to compete in this economy.
Within our lifetime, whites will make up barely half of the population. Right now about one in four Americans is black, Hispanic or Asian. In 2050, it'll be about 1 in 2.
Can we offer opportunity to all our population? Questions of justice and equity aside, do we really think that the United States can remain competitive with half our population left out? It would be like a bird trying to fly with one wing. We can't afford not to offer opportunity to all of our population.
As the Vice President reported to you earlier, schools with 50 percent or more minority students and 71 percent of low-income students are lagging behind.
Minority communities are not any better off at home either. While 35% of White American students report using a computer at home, only 15% of Black American students do.
And what about libraries -- traditionally the refuge for those too poor to buy books. Some people thought libraries would become less important as people began walking into CompUSA and buying PCs for the house. The fact is libraries have been deluged with requests for computer services.
The New York Times had an editorial the other day making exactly this point. They called it: "New York's Starving Libraries." Less than 60% of New York state's public libraries have internet connections -- and less than 20% of the public school libraries.
We need to do better.
In 1993, the United States spent $9.6 billion to get students to schools on buses. Shouldn't we invest a quarter of that amount to ensure that once our children get to the classroom, they have access to the benefits of the communication revolution?
I see two key steps for us to take immediately.
First, wake up and realize that the importance of information technology to the rural, poor urban, and disenfranchised and to our country being competitive and prosperous and secure in the 21st century.
Second, make sure the schools and libraries that most need help take advantage of the universal service support. We must -- I repeat -- must make sure that those schools and libraries don't get left even further behind.
Since Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, we at the FCC have been working hard to bring Americans the benefits that the law was designed to accomplish. Congress directed the FCC to do many things, including directing us to reform the entire universal service structure. Universal service was paid for, in part, through access charges. Long distance companies pay access charges to local phone companies because long distance companies depend on the local phone networks as the beginning and end points of every long distance call.
Congress told us to clean up the complicated formula for access charges that came about as a result of the break up of AT&T. So in the last year, the Commission has cut access charges by almost two billion dollars. That's billion with a "b." That makes it a whole lot cheaper for long distance companies to provide you with long distance service. So have the long distance companies passed their saving through to you? The largest long distance companies made public promises that they would. They said that if we cut access charges, then they would cut long distance bills. Have they done so? Well, they have yet to show me that consumers got the promised savings.
So today I am sending letters to the big three long distance companies and I'm asking them to show us how they have shared their lower costs with their consumers. And if they have not passed their reduced costs on to their customers -- if they have chosen just to call that a couple billion in extra profits -- well, I want to know that too.
And it's not just the long distance companies that I have some questions for. What about the wireless carriers? Are they paying their fair share? I have directed the Commission staff to redouble its efforts with the wireless industry to make sure it is a full participant in the larger telecommunications industry.
Because it's up to all of us to support universal service, to make sure that everyone can enjoy the benefits of the information age. Whether you live in a rural area or the inner city, whether you are rich or poor, whether we are talking about wiring the schools or delivering affordable telephone service to rural Americans, all America must have the opportunity to join in the benefits of the telecommunications revolution. That is what universal service is all about.
Despite all the dizzying advances in technology, from cell phones to the Internet, this field is still in its infancy. Just like those people at the World's Fair thinking about highways, back in 1939, we're still guessing at what lies ahead on the Information Highway. We don't know all the ways the telecommunications revolution will change our lives -- yet. We just know that it will.
At the FCC, we devote a lot of time to making sure telecommunications becomes a competitive industry.
But competition isn't the end game. It's the means to an end.
The end game is a population that sees an America able to sign up for call waiting wherever they live -- and at comparable rates in both places. Where kids of any color, in any school in America can log onto the Internet and realize that not only the chat rooms are fun -- so are the libraries. Where the managers at all the new high-tech companies sprouting up in every suburb in America have people applying for jobs and whether they come from the inner city or off the farm or from a wealthy suburb, they have the skills to start work that day.
If we work together, we in Washington, you in your communities, we can do that.
And so I ask you to help me over the next four years to bring that vision about.
For if we can connect all Americans to this electronic highway that means so much for our future, we will have accomplished what the title of this Conference implies.
We'll have connected Americans to each other.