Nathan Simington’s Unlikely Path to the FCC

FCC nominee Nate Simington
Nathan Simington, formerly an official with the NTIA, speaks during his Senate confirmation hearing. (Image credit: C-SPAN)

Nathan Simington got the unexpected nod from outgoing President Donald Trump last fall to join the Federal Communications Commission, a nomination he says he was surprised to get but is clearly determined to make the most of. 

In this exclusive interview, his first as FCC commissioner, Simington talks about his road from rural (and urban) Saskatchewan to a seat on the FCC, talks about the best way to spur broadband deployment and explains his take on the hot-button Section 230 debate and more.

MCN: Briefly tell us how you got from a rural community in Saskatchewan, Canada, to the FCC.

Nathan Simington: My family has always split its time — six months in each place — between my family farm in Kincaid, Saskatchewan, which you will have trouble finding on a map because it only has two or three hundred people, and Saskatoon, which is one of the principal cities.

I originally moved to the United States in 1999 when I was offered a scholarship to a college in Wisconsin. I went back to Canada for a couple of years for grad school but returned to the United States in 2003, and I guess this time it stuck. [Simington is a naturalized U.S. citizen.]

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My background was originally in academia. I was planning to become a professor. But along with a lot of people between 2006 and 2008 [the economic meltdown] when there were a lot of changes in society generally, I decided to try something else. I received my green card in 2007 and after working for a year in the market research industry I decided to go to law school, which eventually led me here today.

MCN: You were at the National Telecommunications & Information Administration for only five or six months before being tapped for this post. What was your role there?

NS: I was the senior adviser in the front office, which means I was working daily with the deputy assistant secretary and assistant secretary to formulate policy and responses on a wide variety of issues. But my primary focuses were wireline issues, spectrum issues and internet governance issues.

MCN: How did you find out you had been nominated to the FCC?

NS: I must say I was surprised. I understand that the White House spoke to a number of people trying to determine who they wanted to nominate. I got a call that they had decided to offer me the candidacy. I think they had been interested in a number of the reforms and interagency cooperation initiatives that I had discussed. Even so, there was a lot to learn and a lot of people to meet with and convince. Somehow that wound up with me being here today.

MCN: Let’s talk about internet governance and Section 230. The Democrats have said that it was your work on that issue [Simington worked on a petition to the FCC mandated by the president] that got you the FCC job. You say the nomination surprised you. Why do you think the president picked you? Was your Section 230 expertise part of the reason?

NS: I would not claim to have been a Section 230 expert when I was hired by NTIA. I developed a certain amount of experience with 230 and knowledge of the related legal and regulatory issues during the course of my appointment there. But, frankly, you could find any number of people in August or September of 2020 who would have been much more prominent in the Section 230 world than I was.  I had never published on it and never participated in a single conference on it. 

Until as recently as October, I don’t think the position had even emerged that Section 230 was within the FCC’s regulatory competence. Obviously, I have become identified by both parties with the Section 230 controversies. To the extent there is any basis for that identification, I want to point out that it is now moot. 

Whoever is the new chair or acting chair will be the person with the agenda-setting ability and chairman Pai has said no 230 item is going to come up during his tenure. [President Joe Biden named Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel as acting FCC chair on Jan. 21.]

So, what the future holds for Section 230 remains extremely unclear. That
ties into the larger question of how, if at all, the U.S. government is going to
choose to regulate social media. So, I suspect this is going to be the focus of legislation for some time to come as Congress hashes out how, if at all, it wants to address the question. 

MCN: Do you think social media needs regulating?

NS: On the larger question of a social media regulatory regime, I don’t think
the FCC has any broad power in that area. As far as whether I would like the FCC to take up a Section 230 rulemaking, I think we would need a very detailed consultative process to determine whether, in the end, that was wise. 

MCN: What is your regulatory philosophy?

NS: Coming from private industry rather than the D.C. telecom bar, I put a lot of emphasis on the effect of capital management on business and the difficulties of doing so in an uncertain regulatory environment.

On my regulatory philosophy generally, obviously the FCC has a mandate from Congress to act in the public interest and the FCC has an obligation to do so and not to allow its judgment to be clouded by other considerations.

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MCN: What is the best way for the government to promote broadband adoption and should broadband speeds or affordability — including price regulation — be part of that conversation?

NS: As far as price regulation for broadband, I think that is a little bit of a dangerous route to go down. Price regulation can be seen as a way of immediately capturing benefits for the consumer because they are able to get more of the upsides of a given infrastructure investment than they would have been able to otherwise. But if it has chilling effects on further infrastructure investment then you can wind up capping the structural ability of that sector to absorb capital and, if that is the case, then that one-time bonus is never going to be repeated.

As far as other aspects of how to roll out broadband better, I think that it is clear that more Americans have more and better broadband than has ever been the case, and this is true year after year. So, again, this becomes a question of progressing to the end of that and identifying the remaining obstacles.

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I am very excited about the proliferation of broadband technologies in just the past few years. LEO (low earth orbit) satellites were the number two winner in RDOF [the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund subsidy auction] and you have heard great things from very remote and underserved communities that suddenly find themselves with broadband where they had nothing prior.

So that is an example no one would have predicted a few years ago. But keeping our thumbs off the scale has allowed investors to find enough confidence in this to make the billions of dollars in investment up front to make it. 

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.