With Trump FCC boss Ajit Pai and his goofy coffee mug headed for the exits, the Biden administration wasted no time promoting existing FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel to be the interim boss of the nation’s top telecom regulator.
Rosenworcel has long supported net neutrality, and opposed most Trump FCC policies, be it the steady dismantling of the agency’s consumer protection authority, or efforts to eliminate decades-old media consolidation rules designed to protect public discourse and smaller companies from massive media monopolies.
“I thank the President for the opportunity to lead an agency with such a vital mission and talented staff,” Rosenworcel said in a statement. “It is a privilege to serve the American people and work on their behalf to expand the reach of communications opportunity in the digital age.”
Rosenworcel joined the agency in 2012, and has been notably tougher on telecom monopolies than her predecessor. In 2019, Rosenworcel pressured telecom giants to come clean on their collection and sale of sensitive user location data to third parties, and consumer groups say she’s been a steady advocate of consumer rights throughout her tenure.
“As a commissioner, Rosenworcel has challenged the Trump FCC's worst actions and impulses,” Craig Aaron, co-CEO of consumer group Free Press said of the appointment. “Now she must rebuild after the previous regime tried to demolish so much of the agency's most important work. Rosenworcel's long record of public service and deep knowledge of the issues before the FCC make her uniquely suited to fixing what has been broken at the agency over the past four years.”
The appointment comes at a pivotal time for the FCC, as the Covid crisis brings the lack of competition and affordable broadband options into stark relief.
Roughly 42 million Americans—double official FCC estimates—lack access to any broadband connection whatsoever. Another 83 million only have the choice of one provider, usually Comcast or Charter. This lack of meaningful competition directly results in high US broadband prices, spotty coverage, and routinely terrible customer service.
That was a problem during normal times, but it’s particularly pronounced during a pandemic where broadband is an essential lifeline to education, employment, and opportunity.
While the Biden FCC is likely to reverse many Trump-era policies in time, Rosenworcel will initially have her hands tied. Under FCC rules, the party that controls the White House enjoys a 3-2 partisan advantage. But until Biden and Congress appoint and seat a third Democratic Commissioner—and permanent boss—Rosenworcel will face 2-2 partisan gridlock.
While the Biden FCC initially won’t be able to take major steps like restoring net neutrality without a majority, Rosenworcel won’t be entirely powerless. For example, she could easily withdraw the FCC’s support for the DOJ's existing lawsuit against California for passing state-level net neutrality rules.
In 2017, Ajit Pai did something similar when he pulled the rug out from FCC lawyers that were attempting to combat prison telecom monopoly price gouging in court.
Contrary to public perception, the Trump FCC repeal of net neutrality didn’t just eliminate net neutrality rules. It effectively crippled the agency’s consumer protection authority, leaving it largely powerless to police predatory behavior during the pandemic, be it the use of bogus fees to drive up your monthly bill, or the refusal to repair failing equipment in a timely fashion.
With neither healthy competition nor functional regulators to constrain them, large ISPs like AT&T and Comcast had free rein during the Trump era to steadily raise rates, use the lack of net neutrality to gain unfair leverage in the streaming wars, and steadily expand pointless and predatory usage caps designed to raise prices even further.
The U.S. government has a very long history of downplaying or ignoring rampant telecom monopolization and the obvious end result. But Covid is applying a significant new layer of political pressure that should drive the Biden FCC toward taking more serious action, even if it won’t be able to fully pursue that agenda immediately out of the gate.