Jessica Rosenworcel, FCC Chairwoman

Five key labor unions sent a letter to President Biden this week urging him to change Jessica Rosenworcel’s status from acting FCC chair to permanent.

“Her focus on greater opportunity, accessibility and affordability in our communications services and her tireless advocacy on behalf of workers, educators, students, families and consumers has never been more important,” the unions said.

The unions signing the letter include the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the Communications Workers of America (CWA); the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW); the National Education Association (NEA); and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

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Rosenworcel’s FCC Tenure

Rosenworcel has been an FCC commissioner considerably longer than her peers. She was appointed to the commission by President Obama and later named acting chair by President Biden in January.

Of the five FCC commissioner spots, only three can be aligned with the same party. Traditionally whichever party is in the White House has a majority on the commission, enabling the commission to adopt policies aligned with the president’s party.

Currently, however, there are only four FCC commissioners – two Democrats, including Rosenworcel, and two Republicans — and as the unions put it in their letter, “the vacant Democratic commissioner seat prevents the commission from taking meaningful action to build back better.”

Biden essentially needs to either make Rosenworcel permanent chair and appoint someone to fill her vacated commissioner spot or appoint someone else – most likely someone not currently on the commission – to be the permanent chair.

The letter from the unions cites various accomplishments Rosenworcel has made since she was appointed acting chair, including launching the low-income Emergency Broadband Benefit broadband program and the Emergency Connectivity Fund. The latter is aimed at ensuring that school children have broadband access at home.

In addition, Rosenworcel gained consensus with her fellow commissioners on rules for the 3.45 GHz auction, rules for the second round of the COVID-19 telehealth program and modified orbits for SpaceX satellites, the letter notes.

The unions argue that with only four FCC commissioners, the FCC is understaffed at a time when there is much work to do to close the digital divide. That work “will be slowed until the vacant seat at the FCC is filled and Acting Chair Rosenworcel is appointed to permanent chair,” the letter argues.

In her years on the FCC commission, Rosenworcel has pushed for higher broadband speed targets for rural deployment programs and has come up with some novel ideas for addressing problems with FCC broadband availability data.

Biden’s impending decision about who to appoint permanent FCC chair comes at a time when federal legislators seem to have lost some confidence in the commission. As Congress considers allocating funding for broadband deployments in unserved rural areas, D.C. insiders say the legislators are considering giving responsibility for awarding the funding to the states and the Department of Agriculture, rather than to the FCC, which traditionally has been responsible for awarding the lion’s share of broadband funding.

Legislators are concerned about the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which used a reverse auction to awarded funding to deploy broadband to unserved rural areas. Concerns have arisen about whether some winning bidders will be able to meet their commitments, and seven months after the auction was completed, not a single winning bidder has been given the go-ahead.

The RDOF rules were established under the previous administration and Rosenworcel disagreed with some aspects of them. But if she is appointed permanent FCC chair, she will need to work hard to re-instill confidence in the commission.

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