William KennardABILITY Editor-in-Chief Chet Cooper caught up with William Kennard, the youthful Chairman of the powerful Federal Communications Commission, during ceremonies marking the arrival in Los Angeles of the ADA Torch Relay Volkswagen van convoy. Kennard was keynote speaker at the event, which took place June 19 in the Bradley Terminal of Los Angeles International Airport. The native Angeleno was introduced to the gathered spectators and relay participants by LAX Executive Director Lydia Kennard, who also happens to be his sister. Afterwards, the FCC Chairman and Cooper got together for a discussion about the future of telecommunications and Kennard's plans to ensure the new internet-driven technology is accessible to all Americans.

CC: For the people who are not aware, what does the FCC actually do?

WK: The FCC is responsible for overseeing all uses of the interstate airways. That includes satellites, broadcasting, cell phones, pagers, wireless data applications as well as all interstate uses of phone lines which includes the whole phone network, the fiberoptic cables, the long distance company, the local phone companies. Basically, we are responsible for making sure that all of these networks work for American consumers.

CC: Does that include television?

WK: Yes. Broadcasts as well. Broadcast and cable television.

CC: And the internet?

WK: We don't regulate the internet in any direct sense. (However) we are responsible for the infrastructure that the internet rides on. So, for example, most people in America access the internet over their telephone line and we of course have responsibility for insuring that consumers have access to telephone service, and that the network works and that there is competition in the network. But we have been careful not to regulate directly internet content.

CC: And how are you trying to deal with the digital divide?

WK: Well, I believe--and one of the reasons that I wanted this job is because I believe--that this new (technology) that is so transforming our world and economy is not going to work unless it works for everyone. The internet has grown so tremendously fast in our society. It is the fastest communications technology in the history of the world. (It) grew from almost a dead stop in 1995 to having 80 million users in the United States alone in five years. Nothing has grown that fast. Anytime you have a technology that grows that fast in (so) profound an economy you have to make sure certain segments of our society aren't left behind. So when I got this job I looked across the landscape and identified those segments of our population who are most at risk of being on the wrong side of the digital divide I identified children--particularly poor children--who are very much at risk of not learning how to use this technology in their formative educational years. I identified people in rural areas where the networks are not as advanced, particularly people living on tribal lands--Native Americans. There the phone penetration is a fraction of what it is in the rest of the country. And, finally, I identified the disability community. This is a community that has the potential to be profoundly uplifted by this technology. It has the ability to bring jobs and education and information to a community that has been historically an afterthought in our society. And, so, what I wanted to do was to get ahead of these issues for those at-risk groups. So, we had a very, very aggressive agenda at the FCC to really build on the work of advocates like ABILITY Magazine or the disability community people who fought for the rehabilitation act and later the American Disabilities Act, and to bring the notion of accessibility in universal design from the physical world into the virtual world. Because we know that today in America many people are living in a virtual world. They enter it through an internet access device and they navigate freely around it, and those people who learn how to navigate better in that space are finding that they have better access to information about jobs and education and all the good things that our society produces. So, we can't afford--as we move into this next century--to have 54 million Americans with disabilities cut off from that virtual world.

CC: That's good. Did you know that? (laughter) Fifty-four million--one out of five people. Most disabilities are hidden so you don't necessarily see something like with mobility, which is fairly obvious.

WK: And that number is going to increase because the population is aging. So you have more people having difficulty seeing or hearing or moving around.

CC: The average person--I think this came out of NIH--experiences 13 years of a disability in their lifetime.

WK: Is that right?

CC: It is, because of if you look at the bell-shaped curve of life it is usually at the end where we can no longer do some of the things we've never had problems doing before. As it gets to the end, we experience hearing loss, osteoporosis, cancer, diabetes, etc., etc. Unless you die instantly you will experience that, and actually it is one or more disabilities in a lifetime, with 13 years on the average. So, it does affect us all, and--of course--what we are trying to do is to focus on the ability. There is a big boom going on right now with senior citizens getting on the internet. WK: Yes that's right. It is one of the fastest growing demigraphics in people who are logging on. I love the name of your magazine by the way--ABILITY. I've always blanched at the moniker "disability" because it is a negative term.




More stories from Diahann Carroll issue:

Interview with Diahann Carroll

The Resurrection of Justin Dart, Jr.

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