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White House Picks Its FCC Commissioners

President Barack Obama has nominated Jessica Rosenworcel and Ajit Pai to be the next commissioners on the Federal Communications Commission, signaling that the White House wants to make sure the FCC is not reduced to a trio when Democratic commissioner Michael Copps exits at the end of the year.

Rosenworcel, the Senate Commerce senior communications counsel, and Pai, a former top FCC adviser, had been the leading candidates for the empty FCC seat vacated by Republican Meredith Attwell Baker (Pai had been the choice for this one) and the vacancy that will be created by Copps’ departure.

Confirmation is expected to go relatively smoothly, with a hearing likely to be set within the next several weeks. Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) “is well aware of the importance of filling these key seats at the FCC and will schedule a hearing for the nominees as soon as possible,” said a committee aide on background.

Filling one Republican vacancy and one Democratic vacancy-to-be won’t change the balance of the agency, which will go from a 3-1 Democratic majority to a 3-2 majority, but with broadband adoption and deployment a national priority, not trying to do wo on what would have been two empty chairs by year-end could have sent the wrong signal about the priority of having a full complement of commissioners to deal with that issue. The full house could now also lead the commission to get up to speed on the AT&T/T-Mobile deal vetting, which has implications for wireless broadband buildouts.

For their part, Rosenworcel and Pai will have a short learning curve.

Rosenworcel will be succeeding her old boss. She was a legal advisor on competition and Universal Service, and then senior legal advisor to Copps before exiting in March 2007 to join the Senate Commerce Committee as a top communications advisor to Rockefeller. Before advising Copps, she was an FCC staffer, with responsibilities including legal counsel to the bureau chief of the Common Carrier bureau. Rosenworcel is, therefore, well-versed in the broadband and Universal Service reform issues the FCC is currently focused on.

“Her experience here, combined with her current Congressional work, give her a perspective on telecom and media issues both wide and deep,” Copps said last week. “Her dedication, intelligence and practical good judgment make her an ideal choice for commissioner.”

Before joining the FCC in 1999, Rosenworcel—a 1997 graduate of New York University Law School—was with the law firm Drinker Biddle.

Beginning in 2007, Pai served as deputy general counsel, associate general counsel, and special advisor to the general counsel at the FCC. He joined the law firm Jenner & Block in April 2011. (Austin Schlick, FCC general counsel, was not available for comment.)

Before joining the FCC in 2007 under then-chairman Kevin Martin, Pai’s résumé included deputy chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts (2003-2004) and senior counsel in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy. Between 2005 and 2007, Pai was chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights, including lead counsel on Supreme Court nominations. He was associate general counsel at Verizon from 2001 to 2003.

Pai’s Jenner & Block bio touts his victory over the cable industry in NCTA vs. the FCC, the so-called “sheet rock” case. The Court of Appeals upheld the FCC’s decision that “cable companies must supply competitive service providers with alternative access points to multichannel and broadband wiring inside apartments, condos and other multiple-dwelling units and office buildings when the wires are behind sheet-rock walls.” Pai said he could not comment on his FCC nomination, but he confirmed it was the “sheet rock” case his bio referred to.

So, should cable operators worry about the return of a Kevin Martin FCC Republican, one who wound up bashing the cable industry? Not according to one veteran cable attorney, who pointed out that Jenner & Block has a number of cable clients at the FCC—Cablevision and Charter among them—and added that he does not think Pai is “at all anti-cable.”

Pai was a candidate for the Republican FCC seat in 2009, which ultimately went to Baker. Her exit last summer for Comcast—she actually didn’t join the company until September—opened the door for Pai once again.

As the picks of Republican Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.) and Rockefeller, the pair had been expected to be submitted for Senate consideration by the end of the year.

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