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Is a unified platform the key to upward mobility?

by: Mignon Clyburn, FCC Commissioner

January 28, 2011

I recently experienced my second visit to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Across the many acres of displays, demonstrations, lectures, and booths, I found myself almost unable to comprehend how much technology has advanced in only one year. From tablets, tablets and more tablets to clean energy concepts, interactive gaming and the ever-growing concept of “TV everywhere,” the new and innovative offerings are awe-inspiring. You literally need a half dozen days to take it all in. I had two…

Every other article in the tech trade press devotes a lot of attention to the emergence and ever-growing use of Internet-enabled television sets. I’ve read about them and have seen a few “in action,” but I felt it necessary to experience GoogleTV on my own. I stopped by their display to witness a test run, and what I saw made me further understand what all the fuss is about. The ability to match a viewing screen with endless content on the web is an exciting opportunity for consumers to enhance their home enjoyment, and we should all be excited about the further evolution of this user interface.

I also spent a good amount of time at Panasonic’s display, learning about the company’s green technologies and energy initiatives. I learned more about the use of lithium ion batteries in hybrid electric vehicles, and the new uses of solar power generators and household fuel cells. Panasonic intends to invest $1 billion toward the development of green technologies between now and 2012, and from an environmental standpoint, that is exciting.

And in between the panels, demonstrations, and meetings, I managed to have a little fun, thanks to Microsoft. I got an opportunity to let off some stream in the Kinect interactive exhibit. I played controller-free boxing, and though I need work on my hand/eye coordination, I managed to knock down my chief of staff in front of a large gathering of witnesses! And the answer is yes: It really did feel good.

The long flight from Las Vegas allowed time for me to reflect on another extraordinary opportunity I had last year. I neglected to share with many of you how profoundly moved I was by my visit to three incredible nations in West Africa this past November. And while I could fill a book with all that I saw, I’ll share a few thoughts with you now.

I was afforded the chance to represent our country and this agency during the ITU Global Symposium for Regulators and Consultants (GSR) in Senegal. The GSR, an annual assembly of telecommunications regulators from across the globe, is organized by the International Telecommunication Union Development Bureau. Our schedule and flight patterns allowed us to augment our visit enabling us to interact with counterparts in regulation, NGOs, communications providers, ambassadors, the media, entrepreneurs and the warmest people you will ever meet from The Gambia, Senegal and Ghana. Like us, they want the chance to better their lives and provide their children with more education and endless opportunities. What may surprise some, however, is that in many instances, the “help” that they are actually seeking is not in the form of the “traditional aid to Africa” pleas we grew up witnessing on television and through other media outlets. Instead, they want “partnerships” that will give Africans greater ability and opportunity to be active participants in helping themselves.

My most moving encounter was in The Gambia with a group of over 100 hard working women who literally walked to a community center to see me. They were beautifully dressed and incredibly patient. While at first they appeared a bit hesitant, I later came to realize how proudly engaging they were. I am not sure what they hoped for or what they expected from me personally, but once we gained comfort and made a connection, they shared the most heartbreaking stories about the significant sacrifices they make in their attempts to to educate all of their children (not just the boys, who always get priority) and carry out their work as harvesters of oysters in a manner that is as safe and as profitable as they know how.

Mrs. Fatou Janha, who helped organize hundreds of members of TRY Oyster Women’s Association, helped translate and engage these mothers, daughters, sisters and aunts in conveying their one ask “of us”: to help provide cell phones to their membership. This would enable them to follow the market prices for their oysters and other seasonal commodities similar to what they are successfully doing with crops through the Manobi Development Corporation in Senegal and with Shea nuts/Shea butter through The Global Fairness Initiative in Ghana. They also hoped it would ensure their safety as they harvest along the sometimes treacherous shores, where they lost one member the year before when the high tide swept her away.

While it is still relatively expensive to own and operate a mobile telephone in many countries in Africa, the wireless industry appears to be among the fastest growing and most advertised product in these countries. Landline services (and broadband) are virtually non-existent in homes, but cellular penetration has exceeded all expectations. During a recent discussion, Jim Denney, Vice President of Product Management at TiVo, brilliantly explained how this “unified (communications) experience” has the near-term promise to simplify our lives through mobile and devices and television sets. If this is so, then I am becoming increasingly more hopeful that we will be able to literally connect the world with easy to use and affordable devices that will make those women in West Africa’s dreams become a reality in a very short period of time.

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