Where Is Biden's Permanent FCC Boss?

Nearly six months into Biden’s term and his FCC remains gridlocked and incapable of reversing unpopular Trump-era policies.
Image: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Biden administration still hasn’t appointed a permanent leader of the nation’s top telecom regulator, worrying consumer advocates who say the delay will likely prove costly for U.S. consumers.

Under the law, control of the FCC is determined by whichever party controls the White House. Win the Presidency, and you’re given a 3-2 Commissioner majority allowing you to implement policies that reflect your agenda.

But while the Biden administration has made a lot of noise about reining in monopolies, it still hasn’t formally chosen a permanent boss to lead the nation’s top telecom regulator nearly six months into Biden’s first term. Biden picked democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel as the interim chairwoman, but the fifth commissioner slot remains vacant. That in turn has left the agency gridlocked at 2-2 commissioners after the rushed fall appointment by Trump of new Commissioner Nathan Simington. 

Without its full roster of commissioners and a permanent boss, the Biden FCC can’t reverse most of the controversial and unpopular policies implemented during the Trump administration, whether it’s the attack on net neutrality, the elimination of decades-old media consolidation rules, or the gutting of the FCC’s consumer protection authority.

The lack of action is starting to annoy consumer advocates, who say the administration’s concern about unchecked monopolies isn’t reflected in the lack of urgency when it comes to telecom reform.

“I'm starting to get legitimately concerned that there is some telecom plot afoot, or that the Biden admin is planning to talk a good talk on issues like net neutrality but then let the clock run out by dragging their feet on nominating a 5th commissioner,” Evan Greer, Deputy Director of consumer rights group Fight For The Future told Motherboard. 

More than two dozen consumer groups wrote to Biden last month, warning that it could take months to appoint and confirm a new FCC boss. By that point, a full year may have passed before the administration even begins to take steps toward meaningful reform. 

“If we are to reach the goal of having a country where everyone, no matter their address or size of their bank account, has affordable access to high-speed internet, we need a full commission as soon as possible,” the groups wrote.

The delay reflects ongoing policy myopia in DC, where “big tech” consumes most of the policy oxygen in the room, leaving “big telecom” seeing little accountability—despite routinely engaging in the same bad behaviors

Greer noted that by this point in Trump’s first term, former Verizon lawyer turned FCC boss Ajit Pai was already hard at work stripping away decades-old media consolidation rules, and laying the groundwork for the hugely unpopular repeal of net neutrality. 

“Why isn't Biden moving quickly to reverse that? It would be such an easy win to reinstate a policy that the overwhelming majority of voters from across the political spectrum support,” Greer said. “Biden needs to nominate a 5th commissioner ASAP, and that person should have zero ties to the telecom industry.”

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the net neutrality repeal didn’t just eliminate net neutrality rules. It stripped away much of the FCC’s consumer protection authority, leaving the agency powerless to police everything from Covid-related industry promises to billing fraud. It even attempted to ban states from stepping in and filling the consumer protection void.

Worse, consumer groups have been quick to complain the entire repeal process was not only based on empty promises, it was accompanied by significant fraud—such as the telecom industry’s use of fake and dead Americans to provide the illusion of broad support for the plan.

While a recent Biden executive order urges the FCC to restore net neutrality and several consumer protection initiatives (like requiring ISPs provide a broadband “nutrition label” showing hidden fees and surcharges), the FCC can’t implement these policies without a functioning majority, something the Biden administration seems to be in no rush to provide.