After many months of waiting, the Biden White House has tapped Jessica Rosenworcel to be Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chair and Gigi Sohn for the fifth and final seat on the five-person commission. Until these vacancies are filled, the agency will remain deadlocked at two-two, Democrats vs. Republicans. Now that there’s daylight for a clear majority, action at the FCC is urgent to protect an open internet, make it more affordable to everyone and address the disgraceful lack of diversity in ownership of U.S. media.
Questions about who would take these key leadership positions had swirled around Washington, D.C., all year. Taking this much time to name anyone beats even the longest delay in recent memory: Back in 1977, President Jimmy Carter managed to at least nominate a new chair by mid-September of that year.
In the interim, the Biden administration had repeatedly stated that ensuring people have access to high-speed internet is a priority. The delay in naming a permanent chair to the FCC as well as a fifth commissioner has hobbled the agency’s ability to ensure that U.S. broadband is open and affordable to everyone.
To do so, the FCC needs to return to its authority under Title II of the Communications Act to regulate internet access like the essential utility it is. Now the White House has given the FCC the leadership and votes it needs to get the job done — and it’s incumbent on the Senate to confirm Rosenworcel and Sohn as soon as possible.
The stakes were clear even before Biden took office. The Trump administration’s disastrous decisions gutting the FCC’s authority to regulate broadband and repealing net neutrality rules in late 2017 marked a cultural moment. Without net neutrality protections, powerful companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon are free to take from internet users the ability to choose where we go and whom we connect with online. People demonstrated outside of Verizon stores — since Verizon was a former employer of Donald Trump FCC Chairman Ajit Pai — in all 50 states and the District of Columbia in the days leading up to the repeal. My media reform advocacy group, Free Press and our allies — including Democratic FCC commissioners and lawmakers — assembled on a cold December morning with dozens of activists outside the FCC to protest the decision and call for the return of protections.
Since Biden’s inauguration, public interest groups and activists have sent letters and petitions to the White House and Senate leadership calling for the agency to get the majority it needs to repair the damage done during the Trump years.
These shouldn’t be partisan issues, and outside of the Beltway, they aren’t. But they are inside D.C. and the FCC. Without the votes needed to restore FCC authority over broadband, the agency has been unable to take all of the bold action it needs to take. It hasn’t been able to fully stop internet service providers from cutting off people’s service during the COVID-19 pandemic, or investigate these companies’ unjust and unreasonable use of data caps to milk more money out of an emergency COVID funding program for internet subscribers.
In addition, while the agency successfully created that new program (called the Emergency Broadband Benefit) under a pandemic-relief bill that Congress passed last year, it couldn’t require providers to accept that benefit on every plan they offer because it didn’t have the votes to do so. It implemented these new bills Congress is passing only in ways that would pass muster with the agencies’ two Republican commissioners. The short-staffed FCC also couldn’t fully guarantee its longstanding Lifeline program — which offers a subsidy to those who can’t afford the high costs of communications — would be useful for broadband, or take other transformative steps to ensure affordable high-speed internet access for low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, which are disproportionately affected by the digital divide.
With a filled-out commission, the agency can and must do all of that and more. It must conduct the race-equity audit called for by Free Press’s Media 2070 project, MediaJustice and more than 100 organizations and community leaders. The audit would include a thorough FCC investigation of the history of racism in its media policies, and identify reparative actions the agency can take.
The administration now faces a serious time crunch: Confirmation of FCC nominees like Rosenworcel and Sohn could take months. But we don’t have that kind of time now, thanks to how long the White House took to finalize these picks.
Now the ball is in the Senate’s court. If it truly wants to prioritize an affordable internet, net neutrality protections and an equitable media system, it needs to confirm Rosenworcel and Sohn. The time to do so is now. Everyone can help make this happen by contacting their senators in support of quick confirmation.