President Biden has appointed Jessica Rosenworcel to serve as acting chairwoman of the FCC now that former chairman Ajit Pai has stepped down with the change in presidential administration. Rosenworcel has served as FCC commissioner since 2012, with an interruption in her tenure of several months in 2017 when her initial appointment expired and she awaited reconfirmation.
Pai’s departure leaves the commission with just four commissioners, potentially leading to stalemates on partisan issues until a fifth commissioner is appointed. It isn’t clear whether Rosenworcel is still in the running to become chair of the agency longer term or if, instead, Biden plans to seek someone else for that position.
In her time at the commission, Rosenworcel has argued for the establishment of “audacious” broadband goals, arguing that the FCC broadband speed target should be 100 Mbps rather than the current 25/3 Mbps speed definition.
Rosenworcel also may have coined the term “homework gap” to describe the gap between students who have broadband and those who do not. Those in the latter group are at a disadvantage academically, she has argued.
Rosenworcel was appointed to the FCC by President Obama when Tom Wheeler was FCC chairman and she supported a range of pro-Net Neutrality measures imposed at that time. Some of those measures were largely undone under Pai’s administration and some industry observers expect the new administration to try to reimpose them. Another possibility is that legislators will take action on Net Neutrality to put permanent guidelines in place and end the Net Neutrality policy flip-flops that the FCC seems doomed to repeat.
Despite strong disagreements on topics such as Net Neutrality and the low-income Lifeline program, and despite an increasingly contentious political atmosphere, however, the FCC commissioners often are able to obtain consensus on key issues and that would appear unlikely to change moving forward.
That would be a good thing at a time when there are numerous open items that the incoming administration will need to tackle. Several spectrum auctions are already queued up and the wireless industry will continue to demand more spectrum. There’s also a lot of work to be done involving the Universal Service Fund, including administering the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, obtaining accurate broadband availability data through the Digital Opportunity Data Collection initiative, and more.
Rosenworcel seems to be good at “out of the box” thinking and often comes up with novel ideas that bear further exploration. Among other things, she has suggested using crowdsourcing to improve broadband availability data. And I would have liked to see the commission implement her idea of creating a challenge process for areas excluded from the RDOF auction. (In an effort to make the auction happen quickly, the commission instead established a challenge process that was aimed only at taking areas off the eligible list.)
However long Rosenworcel serves in the FCC chair role, she should help ensure a smooth transition, as she brings strong experience and critical thinking to the responsibilities in front of her.