President Joe Biden’s designation of Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel as Acting Chairwoman of the FCC reflects the political shift underway in Washington as Democrats, newly in charge of the White House and Congress, prepare to roll back several deregulatory actions implemented under former President Donald Trump. Biden and his congressional counterparts over the past year have teased an ambitious digital agenda, including promising to expand internet access nationwide, reports The Washington Post.
Rosenworcel supports net neutrality and has called on the FCC for years to put its weight behind a big effort to build out broadband to the country’s most unserved communities. As part of that, look for her agency to work to close the “homework gap,” a disparity that leaves millions of students nationwide lacking the broadband connectivity required to complete their classwork.
“If you want evidence this is not right, it’s all around us,” Rosenworcel said in a statement earlier this month. “There are people sitting in parking lots using free WiFi signals because they have no other way to get online. There are students who fall in the homework gap because they lack the high-speed service they need to participate in remote learning.”
Rosenworcel, a Democratic commissioner at the FCC for the past eight years, assumes the reins at the telecom agency as the federal government is under pressure to ensure all Americans have quality internet access amid the coronavirus pandemic. To start, Rosenworcel must take over ongoing agency work to implement a new pandemic stimulus program authorized by Congress that would provide rebates to Americans struggling to afford internet service.
Even with the FCC in deadlock, experts told the Post they also expect Rosenworcel to try to release billions of dollars in funds to help students obtain access to WiFi hot spots and other technologies needed to get online. The FCC under just-departed GOP Chairman Ajit Pai ruled that this money, known as E-Rate, only is meant for classroom use. Many Democrats oppose this position at a time when kids are still learning from home because of the pandemic.
But Rosenworcel may face early obstacles. New vacancies at the FCC leave it deadlocked at two Democrats and two Republicans. The stalemate will not totally trap the agency in policy paralysis, but it still may set back some of the most ambitious plans until Biden nominates an additional Democrat and the party’s razor-thin majority in the Senate can confirm that person, Inside Towers reported.
Her first monthly meeting in her new role comes on February 17. Even with a 2-2 deadlock, Rosenworcel can take some noncontroversial actions that don’t require a full Commission vote, noted Ars Technica.
During his campaign, Biden signaled that his FCC will restore network neutrality rules which require ISPs to treat all web traffic equally. Pai eliminated those rules over the objections of Democrats like Rosenworcel. She said at the time the agency had “failed the American public.” Restoring net neutrality, plus reinstating FCC common-carrier regulation of ISPs, will require a Democratic majority at the agency.