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Biden’s telecom picks jump-start Democratic broadband push

Senate must wade through packed legislative docket before moving communications nominees

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel testifies during a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing on May 15, 2019.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel testifies during a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing on May 15, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

President Joe Biden would move $65 billion closer to meeting his goal of bringing high-speed internet access to every American household if the House passes the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill.

But while Democrats on Capitol Hill have done their part to aid the White House’s connectivity agenda, they have had to be patient as Biden selected nominees for the top posts at the Federal Communications Commission and the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

The party’s agenda received a jump-start last week when Biden designated Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC’s acting chairwoman, to serve in the post on a permanent basis.

Rosenworcel, who would make history if she becomes the first woman to lead the agency on a permanent basis, called it an honor to try to “ensure that no matter who you are or where you live, everyone has the connections they need to live, work, and learn in the digital age.”

An FCC commissioner since 2012, Rosenworcel is known for her promotion of net neutrality and her coining of the phrase “the homework gap,” which refers to the struggle students who lack home internet access face when trying to complete homework.

Since taking the gavel on an interim basis, Rosenworcel has implemented numerous connectivity programs designed to aid those who struggled to afford internet access during the pandemic, including students and laid-off or furloughed workers.

Biden also tapped Gigi Sohn, a progressive broadband policy advocate, to fill an empty seat on the commission.

With the almost certain addition of Sohn, Democrats would hold a 3-2 majority on the commission, giving Rosenworcel the support she needs to move forward with progressive priorities like restoring net neutrality rules reversed by the Trump administration.

The picks were welcomed by Democratic lawmakers, who wasted no time expressing their wishes for the agency’s new majority.

“With these selections, the FCC will be fully equipped to reinstate Title II oversight and net neutrality for broadband providers, continue its work to close the digital divide, and ensure broadband is affordable for all,” said House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J. “With current Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, they will make an excellent team.”

How quickly the Senate can act on Rosenworcel and Sohn will depend on a packed legislative calendar that includes both the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the social spending plan that Democrats hope to pass through reconciliation, addressing the debt ceiling and keeping the federal government funded after the continuing resolution expires Dec. 3.

But Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said the nominations came “at just the right time,” adding that her panel would “swiftly [consider] these nominations before the end of the year.”

The committee will also weigh Biden’s nomination of Alan Davidson, a technology executive who also served in the Obama administration, to lead NTIA, which would oversee the disbursement of more than $42 billion in federal broadband funding if the bipartisan infrastructure bill becomes law.

The private sector has not always backed Democratic telecommunications officials, especially those who favor more government control over how networks are built and maintained. But the picks of Rosenworcel, Sohn and Davidson won industry approval.

Industry approval

“Both [Rosenworcel and Sohn] understand the power of broadband to make real progress in advancing social justice, healthcare, education, and sustained economic growth and opportunity,” said Jonathan Spalter, the president of the industry association USTelecom.

Spalter said his members would be “all-in” on “shaping smart, common sense and pro-consumer communications policies that look firmly to the future to build a truly connected, innovating, inclusive, and globally competitive nation.”

Rural broadband providers, who must compete with major national companies, also backed Biden’s picks. Shirley Bloomfield, who leads NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association, praised Sohn for “consistently looking to level the playing field and get everyone, regardless of the obstacle before them, connected to better and more affordable broadband.”

Rosenworcel, in particular, won support from a coalition that supports the development and adoption of Open Radio Access Network technology, known as Open RAN, which experts say has the potential to give the U.S. an advantage over China in the so-called race to 5G.

“Rosenworcel has long recognized the importance of Open RAN for 5G deployment, innovation and supply chain resiliency, and has shown tremendous leadership at the FCC in starting a significant policymaking process in support of Open RAN,” said Diane Rinaldo, executive director of the Open RAN Policy Coalition.

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