President Biden names Jessica Rosenworcel as interim FCC chair


FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel will head up the agency until a permanent head is named.

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President Joe Biden named Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel as interim chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday. Rosenworcel, who has served as a commissioner for eight years, will lead the agency until a permanent chair is confirmed by the Senate.

Rosenworcel is the second woman in the agency’s history to take the role of acting chair. 

President Barack Obama first nominated Rosenworcel to the FCC in 2011. She has served since May 2012, when she was confirmed by the Senate, and is the most senior commissioner. 

Rosenworcel has been a strong proponent of net neutrality and improving the FCC’s broadband coverage maps. She’s also pushed the agency to do more to close the so-called homework gap, an issue that’s gained more prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic when most school-age children in the country are accessing school remotely via the internet. The homework gap is a term used to describe students who lack adequate broadband service to access school and homework. It’s a persistent problem,  especially among rural and low-income students, who are unable to get access to or afford broadband service.

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“I am honored to be designated as the acting chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission by President Biden,” Rosenworcel said in a statement Thursday. “I thank the president for the opportunity to lead an agency with such a vital mission and talented staff. It is a privilege to serve the American people and work on their behalf to expand the reach of communications opportunity in the digital age.”

Rosenworcel’s appointment to the top job prompted praise from both the industry and public interest groups. Broadband and wireless provider Verizon said it was a “smart choice” for Biden to choose Rosenworcel to head up the agency until a permanent head is named.

“Through her many years of public service at the FCC and on Capitol Hill, Commissioner Rosenworcel has developed a deep understanding of the importance of modern communications networks to consumers and to our nation,” Kathy Grillo, Verizon’s senior vice president and deputy general counsel, said in a statement. “Her passion and efforts to address the digital divide and close the homework gap are truly issues that will make a difference to millions of Americans.”

The consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge echoed those sentiments. 

“Over the last four years, Commissioner Rosenworcel has advocated for strong consumer rights and protections on the full range of issues before the Commission, be it broadband affordability, higher-speed broadband connectivity at home, or access to innovative technologies,” said Greg Guice, director of government affairs for Public knowledge. “Public Knowledge looks forward to working with Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel to fully engage the public in a consumer-focused agenda to promote the economic, health and educational benefits of a broadband connected economy.”

A divided FCC remains

Given the current makeup of the FCC, Rosenworcel won’t likely be able to act on any big policy issues just yet. The FCC is currently split with two Democrats and two Republicans. This means that big issues, like the reinstatement of Obama-era net neutrality rules, won’t likely be tackled until a permanent chair is named. Once the Senate confirms another Democrat to the FCC, Democrats will have the majority they need to push a more aggressive policy agenda. 

Net neutrality aside, there are still plenty of issues for Rosenworcel to tackle. She is taking control of the agency at a time when the FCC is tasked with implementing a pandemic stimulus program authorized by Congress to help offer broadband rebates and subsidies to people struggling to pay for internet service. She is also likely to push for the FCC to release money allocated under the E-rate program to help subsidize the cost of Wi-Fi hotspots and other technology to students in need. The previous chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, had resisted allocating these resources, arguing the E-rate program could only allocate funds for classroom technology.

It’s unclear when Biden will name a permanent chair to the FCC or who that chair will be. It’s still possible he could name Rosenworcel to the job on a permanent basis. 

Some advocacy groups have pushed for Biden to nominate the other Democratic commissioner, Geoffrey Starks, as the next FCC chair. 

The racial justice organization Color of Change put out a statement last week in support of Starks.

“Starks has demonstrated and recently reaffirmed his commitment to digital equity through Net Neutrality and Title II, broadband expansion via the Lifeline program, and expanding the FCC’s E-rate program to ensure children have the access they need for online learning,” Rashad Robinson, Color of Change president, said in a statement. “The pandemic has underscored the reality that internet access is a clear equity issue — failing to meet this fact with policy will leave Black people behind.”

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