from the better late than never dept
It was the longest delay in staffing U.S. telecom agencies in Presidential history, but a White House announcement states the administration will promote interim boss Jessica Rosenworcel to be permanent FCC boss, while appointing former Tom Wheeler advisor and consumer advocate Gigi Sohn to fill the third empty Democratic Commissioner seat. Sohn played a major role in both the crafting of net neutrality rules (since demolished by telecom sector lobbyists during the Trump era) and the FCC’s broadband privacy rules (also since demolished by telecom sector lobbyists during the Trump era).
Another agency that’s increasingly doing interesting work on broadband (see their recent, more accurate mapping efforts) is the NTIA, which will now be helmed by Alan Davidson. All three choices are broadly popular, understand the potential of competent regulatory oversight and the pitfalls of incompetent overreach. And while maybe not as paradigm-rattling as Lina Khan’s appointment to the FTC, all three will collectively be a notable sea change from the Trump era which, with the occasional exception, involved doing pretty much whatever AT&T and Comcast wanted.
There was some initial talk about Gigi Sohn being appointed FCC boss, but that would have involved demoting Rosenworcel (whose term ends at the end of this year). Given Sohn’s history of consumer and net neutrality advocacy, she likely wasn’t as popular among entrenched telecom providers, making an FCC boss confirmation hearing more contentious. Still, consumer groups see Rosenworcel as somebody they can work with, and are generally positive about both picks:
“Jessica Rosenworcel, Gigi Sohn, and Alan Davidson all have years of experience in fighting for the public interest in broadband policy, whether it is in government or the nonprofit sector. If reports are confirmed by the White House, these nominations will be historic and a clear indication that the Administration is ready to move forward with bold, but experienced leadership in the key agencies dealing with broadband policy. While later than normal, these nominees are the type of skilled leadership that our country needs at this time.”
Rosenworcel didn’t have quite the same level of support as Sohn among progressives, who weren’t entirely thrilled with Rosenworcel’s decision to scuttle the Wheeler FCC’s attempts to bring some added competition to the cable box (she backed the false claim, also supported by the Copyright Office, that cracking open the cable industry’s hardware monopoly over the cable box would have “violated copyright”). But Rosenworcel had the support of numerous Senators and parts of the GOP, who see her as the less “radical” option. Rosenworcel is absolutely smart and competent, and she’s be the first permanent female FCC boss in agency history. Sohn would be the first openly LGBTQ Commissioner in agency history. Both immensely important milestones.
The question now is whether the choice of Rosenworcel comes with some caveats. For example it’s not entirely clear if Rosenworcel will be aggressive in restoring all the things stripped away during the Trump administration at AT&T and Comcast’s behest, whether that was the elimination of net neutrality rules (which largely gutted the FCC’s consumer protection authority), or the demolition of media consolidation rules historically crafted with bipartisan support.
There’s a nasty tendency in DC policy circles to talk ambiguously about the “quest to fix the digital divide,” while ignoring the reason U.S. broadband is actually spotty, expensive, and slow: regional monopolization and the state and federal corruption that protects it. Because clearly calling out the real culprit upsets politically powerful campaign contributors and kingmakers tethered to our intelligence and law enforcement systems, folks in both parties tend to just not bother, keeping the focus on less contentious, safer subjects (wireless spectrum, how much everybody hates robocalls).
But you can’t fix a problem you refuse to even acknowledge, which is why U.S. broadband remains perpetually mediocre thirty years on.
Which is to say while these appointments are all solid, it’s important to keep your gaze focused on what the newly forged NTIA and FCC actually do, not what they say. Hollow rhetoric about the “miracles of 5G connectivity” or the “digital divide” mean nothing if you’re not willing to take on the lumbering monopolies that are actually causing most of the sector’s problems in the first place. The “digital divide” (unaffordable, spotty broadband) is an active policy choice and the direct result of coddling monopolies for 30 straight years. Real telecom leadership and reform has to at least start with actually acknowledging that, something lawmakers and telecom regulators from both parties have historically been violently allergic to.