Over 200 people gathered last night at Preservation Park in downtown Oakland, California, for a spirited town hall with the Federal Communications Commission’s new chairman, Tom Wheeler. The event, titled “Oakland Voices: A Town Hall on Our Right to Communicate,” offered attendees a rare chance to shape the direction of the country’s new FCC administration. Wheeler, who assumed leadership of the FCC in November, seemed receptive, taking vigorous notes and pausing occasionally to listen intently to the speakers.
The event, which was hosted by Voices for Internet Freedom, a network that advocates for Internet access and freedom in communities of color, allotted speaking time for about thirty audience members. Community members, advocates and leaders spoke directly to the Chairman, raising concerns about everything from Lifeline eligibility for people without Social Security numbers to the low broadband Internet capacity of local libraries.
One speaker, Karen Gonzalez, described the exorbitant rates she pays to stay in touch with her son who was sentenced to twenty years in prison as a 17-year-old in 2010. She choked back tears as she explained that her son is now serving his sentence in a state prison fourteen hours away from their home. Though he is still in California, the family must pay costly phone bills to stay in touch with him.
“Our phone conversations mean everything to us,” she said. “To date, we’ve paid over $3,900 toward Global Tel*Link surcharges and long-distance calls to stay in touch with our son. He has sixteen more years to go, which will average out at $20,800 in phone bill charges we are expected to pay in order to remain in contact with him.”
Teresa Favuzzi, executive director of the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers, stressed the importance of programs designed to make the Internet more accessible to the disabled community. Favuzzi decried the high unemployment rate for people with disabilities, which stands at 12.3 percent—nearly twice as high as the rate for able-bodied people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s November 2013 report. She highlighted that people with disabilities need affordable access to high-speed Internet and wireless applications that increase accessibility in order to live independently.
“We can no longer expect to find a job, apply for college, choose a health plan, find an apartment or map a public transit route without access to the Internet,” Favuzzi said. “The FCC has the power to impact whether Americans with disabilities will gain equal access to opportunities to live, learn, earn and thrive in this new digital revolution.”
The chairman listened to a range of other concerns from the audience, including media representation of the poor and media ownership. At one point, a speaker criticized the chairman for his work in the wireless industry and the expansion of wireless networks, saying they cause brain tumors. The group protested the event outside of the building and passed out stickers with the QR code for their website.
Beyond addressing the country’s complex communications challenges, the town hall meeting also offered an early glimpse into the values and character that will shape Wheeler’s administration. At the beginning of his remarks, Wheeler was proud to point out that, now in his third month as chairman, he has yet to make an appearance in Washington, DC. He said he wanted to send a message to the country that his administration is rooted in the lived realities of people outside Capitol Hill.