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Quest to own the information highway.

On the so-called information superhighway, cable systems, wire telephone lines, cellular services, satellite delivery and broadcast properties converge to create an interconnecting electronic thoroughfare on which audio, video and text can travel worldwide. Even though the system is not yet complete, many African-Americans have expressed concern that they will somehow be left on the back roads without an ownership stake.

If information is destined to become the currency of the 21st century, how important is it that black people own a part of the system on which that information travels?

African-Americans already control a share of the communications superhighway. About 200 of the nation's 10,000 broadcast stations are black-owned. Though small in number, these stations are critical to minority communities: They provide key information; a receptive platform for political debate and social commentary; a showcase for minority artists and culture; and a vocational training ground.

Unfortunately, minorities have had little success in increasing their small share of the nation's commercial broadcast television and radio stations. As new wireless technologies are spun off, and the cable industry expands to more than 500 channels, many are hoping that African-Americans and other minorities will be able to get a larger piece of the ownership pie.

"The broadcasting industry began when people weren't really sensitive to including different population groups. That's a mistake we don't want to repeat with the new technologies," says Jo Ann Anderson, of the National Congress for Community Economic Development.

Blacks can seek ownership by investing in start-up ventures or by acquiring an existing entity, says Anderson. They can also seek partial ownership with whites. She believes that ownership opportunities will increase, because "the momentum seems to be toward breaking down monopolies and trying to assure that there's competition."

That might be so, but significant barriers to minority ownership remain. "People are hoping that there are going to be a lot of players," says Anthony Williams, director of the Federal Communications Commission Office of Communications Business Opportunities. "The reality is that the cost to participate is so significant and the technology so sophisticated and high risk, that only a few people are going to end up in the game."

Williams estimates that the auction price of a personal communications services (PCS) license represents only a fraction of the total cost of building a wireless communications system. Maceo Sloan recently paid $91 million for five such licenses. After the system is built, more money must be spent to maintain, market and operate it. "That's substantial capital for the minority business community to come up with for a new service that requires you to compete for customers," says Williams.

So are African-Americans destined to have dismal ownership representation on the information superhighway? Obviously, black ownership is not likely to improve significantly, but there is a positive trend. Rather than concentrating on owning cable, telephone, broadcast and cellular systems, blacks have been creating with great success special services and programming for these new media. For example, black-oriented online services and bulletin boards number in the hundreds, with more being created every month.

As long as the Internet and other information systems carry information and programming that serves the black community, a black voice and presence will be represented--and the effects of black ownership achieved. The danger lies in making sure that the mechanisms and costs for placing these services on the information superhighway are not structured in a way that adversely affects minorities.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:minority ownership
Author:Scott, Matthew S.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Jun 1, 1995
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