by Sam Spence
When Federal Communications Commission leaders meet today in Washington, a former publisher and public utility regulator from South Carolina will cast a key vote on the future of the internet.
Mignon Clyburn is one of four commissioners who, along with the FCC chairman, oversees the agency and helps develop broad public policy measures and govern interstate communications, a purview that has grown from radio and TV to include the internet.
Clyburn has sat on the FCC since 2009, even serving as the chairman for a brief period in 2013 before current chairman Tom Wheeler’s confirmation. At the time, Clyburn was the first woman and the first African-American woman to lead the agency.
Before she came to the FCC, Clyburn spent 11 years on the S.C. Public Service Commission in the congressional district that her father, Congressman James Clyburn, represents in the U.S. House. That doesn't mean she votes in lockstep with her father though; Rep. Clyburn has said that his daughter pursued the appointment at the FCC even though he tried to steer her elsewhere. Before she entered public service, Commissioner Clyburn spent much of the 1980s and 90s as the publisher of the Coastal Times, a small weekly newspaper.
Thursday’s vote is an historic milestone in a decade-long push by open-internet supporters to codify the principle of network neutrality as it applies to major telecommunications companies that handle internet traffic. Under "net neutrality," internet service providers and wireless carriers would be required to treat all network traffic equally and would not be able to provide preference to certain types of network traffic. Competing policies would allow companies like AT&T or Comcast to establish "fast lanes" that preferentially slow or speed up certain types of heavy network traffic like Netflix. Lawmakers and regulators have tried numerous times to bolster net neutrality — Mignon Clyburn has supported the proposal since at least 2010 — but previous attempts have not gone as far as the revised rules up for a vote on Thursday.
Proud to support local communities and vote for local #broadband.— Mignon Clyburn (@MClyburnFCC) February 26, 2015
Before his State of the Union, President Barack Obama announced initiatives that would attempt to roll back laws in 21 states, including South Carolina, that ban the development of municipal broadband networks. One provision up for a vote on Thursday would take up specific proposals for community-based broadband networks in Tennessee and North Carolina that could have a ripple effect in other states.
The proposal up for discussion on Thursday would make net neutrality the law of the land and would also reclassify broadband internet as a telecommunications service, allowing the FCC to regulate the web as a public utility.
Commissioner Clyburn has signaled that she will support the changes, along with Chairman Wheeler and one other commissioner, giving net neutrality the majority it needs.