Remarks of FCC Chairman William E. Kennard
Federal Communications Commission
before the
National Consumers League
Washington, DC
May 17, 1999

(as prepared for delivery)

Thank you, Brandy, for that generous introduction. Brandy is one of the extraordinary women who have come out of South Carolina, and I don't just say that because my wife is from Greenville, South Carolina. Brandy has been a leader in the community and a fighter for consumers in her home state and around the country.

I want to thank Brandy and Linda and all of you for inviting me here today. Not only do I get to see two of the most visionary businessmen in the telecommunications field, Steve Case and Ivan Seidenberg, but I get to see you men and women dedicated to fighting for the ordinary American consumer.

I know that sometimes the work is hard and the hours long, but you make a difference. Sometimes you just need to be reminded of it.

The other day I was taking a cab here in Washington, and the cab driver said, "Aren't you the chairman of the FCC?"

I said, "Yeah, that's me."

We chatted for a bit about my job and his job. Then he says to me, you know, I carry a lot of people around in this cab, lawyers and lobbyists. And a few times I've heard them talking about you.

Oh, really, what do they say?

Well, they can't figure you out. They say that they can't understand you. They say that you just don't play the game.

But then, he says, but you know, you're alright with me because I know that you are out there fighting for the little guy.

That cab driver gave me about the best compliment I'll ever get in this job. This compliment meant more to me than any award or any accolade. Because it means my message is getting through to those that mean the most to me -- the American consumer.

So you may not hear it often, but let me say as Chairman of the FCC as an American how I appreciate the work that you do every day fighting for the little guy. Fighting for American families who spend thousands of dollars each year buying products and services, but who can't spend the millions of dollars for their own Washington lobbyists. For them, you play that role. You represent them. You're their agents -- and our agents -- for change.

And after 100 years of battling for consumers, the National Consumers League is needed now more than ever. We are undergoing a profound transformation in our economy one as significant as the changes that we underwent when you were first founded.

The advent of new technologies from wireless phones to satellite TV to the Internet is profoundly shaping how we work, live, play, and raise our kids. We are leaving the Industrial Age and entering the Information Age. We are entering a New Economy of global companies creating high-skilled, high-paid jobs.

As we cross the digital frontier and venture deeper and deeper into this new world, our challenge is twofold.

One, to make sure that in an global economy of robust competition, consumers have clear information to make informed decisions about what services are right for them and their families.

And two, to make sure that in this transition no one is left behind that all Americans no matter where they live, what they earn, or the color of their skin have access to the technologies creating the opportunities of tomorrow.

In a dynamic marketplace full of competitors clamoring for consumer dollars, there is a risk that some companies would rather cheat than compete for customers.

Unfortunately, we already are seeing this occur in the long-distance marketplace. As competition heats up, some companies are slamming unsuspecting consumers, switching their long distance companies without their permission. Last year alone, the FCC received a record 20,000 slamming complaints.

Recognizing this problem, we've adopted a new policy toward slammers. It's called: zero tolerance.

Over the past year, we dramatically stepped up enforcement. We hit slammers with $13 million in fines -- including the largest single fine in FCC history. And for the first time, we pulled the plug on a slammer, putting him out of the phone business for good.

And this month, tough new rules will take effect. Now, Americans who've had their phone company illegally switched won't get slammed with a bogus bill. After all, asking a customer to pay for being slammed is like asking a crime victim to pay the fine of the criminal. We're taking the profit out of slamming altogether.

Because of our vigorous action, slammers are now becoming an endangered species. And let me tell you that my goal as chairman of the FCC is to make them extinct.

Part of the reason that slammers can prey on consumers is that Americans have many choices today, but too many are confused. The answer, though, is not less choice, but more information clear information to make informed decisions about what services are right for you and your family.

Just by watching the ads on TV or reading the brochures that come in the mail, you know that it can be downright bewildering trying to choose a long-distance carrier.

That's why in March we ordered long-distance carriers to post their rates on the Internet. Now, millions of Americans on-line can easily find out about long-distance rates, and newspapers and consumer groups can make this information available to those not yet on-line. And I want to thank Andy Schwartzman of the Media Access Project, for not giving up on this initiative and tirelessly working to show us what a great idea it is.

Last month, we also adopted a comprehensive truth-in-billing initiative to give Americans the basic information that they need to navigate their way through these confusing waters of new technologies. Because you know as well as I do that reading your phone bill these days is about as easy to understand as hieroglyphics.

In fact, a few months ago, my wife was going over our bills, and she called me over. "Honey, can you give me a hand with this phone bill. I just don't understand all these charges."

I walked over, ready to show off my hours of reading, countless briefings, and years of practicing communications law. And you know what? I didn't understand them either.

Now, if the Chairman of the FCC can't understand his phone bill, then we've got a problem.

And this has the potential for getting even worse. In the next few years, more of us will be buying advanced services from a huge array of companies.

That's why the FCC passed new truth-in-billing rules.

Now, all bills must be clear and understandable. New charges must be highlighted so that consumers can immediately spot them and see if they are warranted.

All charges have to have clear explanations about what they are, and who to contact if there is a problem.

And bills must say clearly in plain English which charges, if not paid, will result in a termination of service.

This truth-in-billing initiative makes sense. You know what's in the medicine you take, the clothes you wear, or the food you eat.

Considering how much you spend on your phone bill and how important a service it is, don't you think you should know what you're paying for? I think so. And with these rules, we've made this happen. And when I say "we," I mean we the FCC and the NCL. You gave us support in this effort. Susan Grant came to the FCC to help us explain to the press why this initiative is important to consumers. I thank her and you for this help.

However, you know as well as I, that increasingly consumers need information about these new technologies and services not just for the benefit of their pocketbook. But also for the benefit of their children.

In the wake of Littleton, Colorado, we have begun to try to grapple with what would lead those two boys to succumb to such evil and commit such a horrific act. We may never know what caustic cocktail of factors whether it be nature, nurture, technology, or the media may have contributed to this tragedy.

But Littleton has focused our attention on the challenges parents face in raising kids in the Information Age, in an age where media outlets are everywhere and are being delivered to children in ways that most parents don't even understand.

There are ways, however, for mothers and fathers to protect their children from the images and themes that they think are inappropriate for them. But many don't know what these are, where to find them, or how much they cost.

That's why the FCC added a "Parents, Kids, and Communications" information page to the FCC website. In one easy-to-use, easy-to-find place - -- we have included information on a whole range of services from filtering software for the Internet to how to block 1-900 calls and how to get a cable "lock-box" to block out the channels that you don't want your children to see.

And that's why the FCC launched a V-chip task force headed by FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani. By working with industry, entertainment producers, parents, and consumer groups, the Task Force will make sure that the V-chip -- a technology to block television programs that parents don't want their kids to see -- is readily available and working, and that parents have information on how to use the V-chip to protect their kids.

But parents, families, and all consumers can't begin to travel down the Information Superhighway, if they don't have an on-ramp in their community.

And that's the second challenge for our country: to make sure that these on-ramps go not only to the business districts, but to the barrios; not only to the cities, but to the countryside; not only to the suburbs, but to the inner cities.

Recently, we at the FCC took a definitive step to help America live up to this challenge. Two weeks ago, I recommended that the FCC fund the e-rate program to wire schools and libraries to the Internet to its cap.

I did this because after one year a year in which $1.7 billion in e-rate discounts went to over 80,000 schools and libraries -- we know that the e-rate is working.

Over 38 million kids -- from the deep woods of the Pacific Northwest to the inner-city neighborhoods of Chicago; from a parochial school in Montana to a yeshiva in Queens - are now connected to the Internet. They now have access to the information that their inquisitive minds thirst for and are learning the skills they'll need to compete in the 21st century.

I've seen this with my own eyes around the country. Last year, I went to an elementary school in Newark, New Jersey - a city that has never fully recovered from the riots that engulfed it over thirty years ago.

I went to this school to see the opening of a new computer lab for the students there. And I had the opportunity -- the privilege, really -- of teaching a nine-year-old student named John to use a computer for the very first time in his life.

I showed him how to boot up the computer and access the web.

First, we went to the FCC's website, and my picture came up. I said, "What do you think?"

"This is boring," he said.

So we surfed around for something that would be more interesting. We found some websites about cars, and then one about the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

And after he was really getting the hang of it. I asked him what he thought about computers and the Internet. And looked at me and this kid's whole face just lit up.

He said, "It's so cool, it's so fast. It's much better than books."

Well, I don't want kids abandoning books. But I walked away thinking: that in that split second, John had summed up the power of this technology to change the world.

It's fundamentally changing the way we learn, the way we process information, the way we stay connected to one another. And as I left that school that day, I thought to myself, that I had witnessed something profound -- what John learned that day had the potential to change the course of his life.

I believe that we can't deny any American child this opportunity. And the American people agree. According to one study, 87 percent of Americans support the e-rate. On top of that, this year, 32,000 school districts, schools, and libraries from across the nation have submitted applications for e-rate funding. By fully-funding the e-rate program, we can meet this demand and continue the work we've done this past year. By following this course, we will be able to wire 528,000 additional public school classrooms to the Internet. If we meet this high demand, we will be able to help schools that teach 40 million American children.

And only by funding at this level, will we be able to reach the children of rural America. In fact, with this funding, we'll be able to connect one-third of public schools throughout rural America.

Now, some people including many of you have been concerned that the e-rate would inordinately boost phone rates of American consumers.

Your concern is one that I considered greatly in making this decision. And that's why along with funding the e-rate to its cap, the FCC -- as we have done over the past two years -- is substantially reducing other costs to America's long-distance carriers, which they should pass along in lower rates to consumers.

So even with funding the e-rate to its cap, they will have available another half a billion dollars which can be - and should be - used to further lower long-distance rates for American consumers.

Your role is to use your unique ability to give voice to the concerns of American consumers and tell these companies that this savings must be passed on to the average American family, not just to the big, corporate customers.

Hooking up our children to the Internet is only one way that we can make sure that all Americans have access to the opportunities found in its wires and web pages. The other part entails making sure that all Americans can use this technology once it finds its way into their living rooms.

We can't forget that 54 million Americans have a disability. We can't forget that there are as many as 15 million people with disabilities who are of working age, who want to work, but can't use the communications tools that are essential to almost any job.

That is why we at the FCC are working with the disability community and with industry everyday to make sure that the new products and new services have accessibility built into them from the get-go. Special products don't have to be developed, just smart products. Manufacturers and engineers must consider the needs of people with disabilities in the design phase. They must remember that it is not just their mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, friends and neighbors who'll be using these technologies.

But as the baby-boom ages and our country grays, more and more of us will be living with a disability. Already, 47 percent of people over 75 have some functional disability. If those who are hard of hearing, or who are blind, or have difficulty using their hands can't use the communications equipment upon which we must rely, we are denying a large part of our country the opportunity for a full life -- as well as depriving the economy of the contribution they can make.

Ensuring people with disabilities can use these technologies to live a fuller life; seeing a child's face light up as he or she goes on-line for the first time; and helping ordinary families make sense of all this incredible change - these are the things that keep me going as chairman of the FCC.

That's the game that I want to play. That is what we are fighting for everyday at the FCC. And I know that is what you are fighting for everyday too.

For if there is ever an ally of consumers and a friend of opportunity, it is the National Consumers League. If there is ever an organization that should be a partner in our work at the Federal Communications Commission, it is you.

Thank you for the opportunity for me to be with you today. And I look forward to our work together.

- FCC -