The Senate Commerce Committee vetted the renomination of acting Federal Communications Commission chair Jessica Rosenworcel for a new, five-year term Wednesday (Nov. 17) and nary was heard a discouraging word.
Rosenworcel‘s warm reception was not a big surprise, as she was overwhelmingly approved for two previous FCC nominations and is a former top Hill staffer (senior counsel to the committee that was vetting her) with fans on both sides of the aisle.
While she shared the witness table with a couple of other nominees, she drew most of the questioning.
That doesn’t mean Republicans are welcoming potential returns of media regulation or net neutrality rules, both of which Rosenworcel has supported in the past and could achieve if a third Democrat — Gigi Sohn has been nominated — is installed to form a Democratic majority. It means that given that the Democrats won the right to pick a chair, she is a known and respected quantity who is arguably more moderate than other chairs Biden could have picked.
As per COVID-19, the hearing was a mix of masked and unmasked senators in the room, as well as remote questioners. A video screen was set up in front of the witness table so they could see who was questioning them remotely.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the committee, present and masked, said that while the Biden administration’s $65 billion investment in broadband is a start, there needs to be better broadband mapping “before we can get anything really done.”
She said the pandemic had deepened the digital divide and Rosenworcel will be a leading figure in getting broadband to all Americans.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), ranking member of the committee, present and unmasked, congratulated “our old friend” Jessica Rosenworcel, pointing to her time as a professional staffer at the committee and her two previous confirmations for FCC terms. He said he was also concerned about getting accurate coverage maps so the billions in government broadband funds would not be used to overbuild existing service. He said spectrum policy, rural subsidies and internet regulation were all issues that needed talking about.
Asked about the Biden administration's $65 billion investment in broadband, Rosenworcel said that bill is a chance for generational change if Commerce and FCC and others are operating off the same data set.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who formally introduced Rosenworcel (who hails from Connecticut), said he was delighted and honored to introduce her as the first female chair of the FCC. He called Rosenworcel an energetic and effective champion of consumers and privacy and net neutrality. He said she had an extraordinary ability to frame complex issues in ways people can understand, like coining the term “homework gap.” He called her appointment a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for implementing the $65 billion in broadband subsidies.
Rosenworcel, who appeared unmasked and in person (though distanced) told the committee it was clear that modern communications needed to reach everyone. She said the FCC was up to the task.
Actually, while the FCC is handing out billions of dollars for telehealth, low-income resident access, schools and libraries, the Biden infrastructure plan‘s tens of billions are actually being overseen by the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, though it will need better broadband maps, with the FCC‘s help, to make sure that money is going to the right places. Rosenworcel conceded at the hearing that the FCC “doesn‘t have a driving role” in handing out all of those funds.
Rosenworcel said that if confirmed and designated as chair, her guiding principles would be public safety; competition, which she said was the most effective way to foster innovation; and an “absolutely fierce commitment” to consumer protection. She also pointed to the pressing need for universal fast, affordable and reliable broadband, which are the connections needed for entertainment, telehealth, education; for breaking down barriers; and for “a fair shot” at success in the economy.
To achieve that, she said there would need to be greater coordination among government agencies, renewed vigilance over safe and secure networks, and ensuring tech leadership. She pledged to lead that charge while listening to Congress, business, and most importantly, the American people.
Sen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) said his only frustration with the Rosenworcel nomination was that it was done in March, something he said the strong bipartisan vote she was about to get in the committee and the Senate would demonstrate. That was seconded by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).
Among the highlights:
• Rosenworcel said she supported legislation to give tax breaks to media outlets to support local journalism, as well as supporting legislation restoring the minority tax certificate that gives tax breaks to companies who sell media outlets to minorities and women.
• Pressed by Wicker on when the FCC would actually produce better broadband maps, Rosenworcel pointed out that the agency had come out in August with better wireless service mapping. As to wired broadband, she pointed out that while she has long known that the FCC did not have the requisite computing power, under her predecessors — both Republican and Democrat — she did not herself have the power to address that deficit.
Rosenworcel said she did know that, and although the FCC last week took an important step by picking a key “broadband serviceable location fabric” technology provider, due to the government contracting process all of the losing applicants were challenging that decision, which would delay matters. She said the best time to produce better broadband maps would have been five years ago, with the second best time being now. ■
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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.