Will the Broadband Plan Broadside Niche Media?

After the Federal Communications Commission unveiled its national plan for the future of broadband Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers began hailing it as a success that will shape the future of everything from energy use to the health industry to education. But can these new guidelines only succeed at the cost of the diverse and participatory models of information access many of us hoped the FCC's guidelines would make more common?

Already the accolades are flowing in: Senator John Kerry called the plan "a roadmap to an America with the most robust, accessible broadband infrastructure in the world and the jobs that come with it, and we should settle for nothing less." Massachusetts Representative Edward J. Markey said, "the commission has given us a roadmap to a broadband future in which we consume less energy, improve the quality of health care through the use of technologies such as electronic medical records and ensure that every American has access to the tools they need to succeed." How, then, are we going to achieve these laudable aspirations?


In the days leading up to the release of the report, the ways the plan would suggest freeing up parts of the broadband spectrum had major broadband providers and broadcasters worried: they mainly feared the plan would mandate broadcasters relinquish certain spectrum ranges to be put to other uses. But the plan released on Tuesday ultimately had them breathing a collective sigh of relief. For now, so-called "spectrum-reclamation" will proceed on a voluntary basis, so that willing companies can give up parts of their broadcast spectrum to be used for wireless broadband.

As I wrote earlier this week, the FCC shying away from a significant restructuring of the way Americans receive broadband service renders the plan—despite its many other positive aspects—less than satisfactory. But as Scott Sanders and James Owens convincingly argue in this Editor & Publisher Op-Ed, even a comprehensive effort to achieve universal broadband access and net neutrality does not in and of itself translate into a social justice success. Sure, it would be a huge step, but at the end of the day a "democratic media system" would be just one tool to be used to achieve larger ends. But the crucial question, and one that Sanders and Owens rightfully ask, is "who should produce that system? Open access to a media system controlled by the status quo will not provide the necessary means for disadvantaged communities and social justice movements to change power relations."

Unfortunately, not only does the FCC's plan not lay the groundwork for a more equitable and representative media system, it could in fact consolidate the ownership of that system in even fewer hands. FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn expressed her reservations about the national broadband plan in general and the voluntary spectrum reclamation in particular, saying that "the plan does not study the impact that a spectrum sell-off would have on women and minority-owned broadcast television stations. It is certainly possible, if not likely, that the stations most amenable to accept the buyout would be those few owners."

A rather surprisingly high 78 percent of Americans get at least some of their news from local TV stations, so homogenizing the ownership of those stations—no matter how rapidly the media landscape may seem to be changing to the casual observer—would affect the way more than three quarters of the country find out about the world. Therefore, we should take Clyburn seriously when she warns that "we may be doing the country a disservice if our actions left Americans relying on over-the-air television with only the major networks at the expense of smaller stations serving niche audiences who rely on them for their news and information."

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, user Methoxyroxy.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.

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