Tuesday, Jessica Rosenworcel became the first woman to lead the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The Senate confirmed her on a 68-31 vote, making her the official chair after serving as acting chair since January at President Joe Biden’s request.
The appointment is seen as good news by progressives, as the commission has been hamstrung without a chairperson. However, the commission is still deadlocked with two Democratic commissioners and two Republican ones. The Senate has yet to confirm Democratic commissioner nominee Gigi Sohn, a move that would give Democrats a 3-2 majority.
As the official chair, Rosenworcel will be better able to align the agency with the White House’s pro-consumer stance. Biden has criticized the unchecked power of corporations to charge high prices, including for services that fall under the jurisdiction of the FCC. In a July executive order, Biden noted that Americans “pay too much for broadband, cable television, and other communications services.”
Before her appointment, Rosenworcel served as an FCC commissioner (since 2012), where she’s been a consistently strong Democratic voice. “President Biden picked someone with great experience, with great knowledge of the FCC at a moment where we need tremendous leadership,” said Senator Maria Cantwell during a floor speech Monday.
Cantwell was referring to Congress’s recent decision to spend many billions on upgrading and extending the nation’s broadband networks, and the FCC’s responsibility to see that the money is spent well. Biden’s Covid relief package provided some money for broadband, and the bipartisan infrastructure bill that Congress passed in November comes with another big chunk: $65 billion. Much of the broadband money will be in the form of grants to states and cities that will contract with broadband companies like Comcast and AT&T to do the buildout. The commission will need real leadership to make sure the broadband money does what it’s supposed to do–that is, bring broadband to rural and underserved communities at affordable rates.
Since the tech industry’s services are mainly delivered via broadband networks, it’s crucial that those distribution networks are fast, reliable, and reach as many consumers as possible. It’s also very important to the tech industry that broadband service providers operate those networks fairly; that broadband providers can’t force, say, Netflix or YouTube to pay an extra fee or see their video streams slowed down. That’s where network neutrality comes in.
Rosenworcel has signaled a desire to reinstate the network neutrality rules that were rolled back during the Trump years when the FCC was led by chairman Ajit Pai. The rules, which prohibited internet service providers (ISPs) from slowing or expediting delivery of any legal content on their networks, were part of the Tom Wheeler FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order, which reclassified broadband as a Title II service to be regulated more like a public utility.
If Gigi Sohn is confirmed and Democrats hold a majority on the commission, Rosenworcel may have a good shot at bringing network neutrality back to life in the U.S.