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Biden Nominates Rosenworcel as FCC Chair, Sohn as 5th Commissioner and Alan Davidson as NTIA Head

Industry reacts to the appointments of Rosenworcel as first permanent woman chair, Sohn as first openly gay commissioner.

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Gigi Sohn is officially appointed as Federal Communications Commissioner.

WASHINGTON, October 26, 2021 – After nine months as interim chair of the Federal Communications Commission, the White House announced Tuesday that it intends to nominate Jessica Rosenworcel as the agency’s permanent head, becoming the first full-time woman in that position.

Rosenworcel will be flanked by former FCC staffer Gigi Sohn, long speculated as a frontrunner for the top job, to be the crucial party tie-breaking fifth — and first openly gay – commissioner on the agency, the White House also announced Tuesday. Alan Davidson, a former director of public policy at Google, has also been nominated as the assistant secretary for communications and information at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration under the Department of Commerce, making him the head of the agency.

The positions must now be confirmed by the Senate.

Rosenworcel said in a statement that she is “deeply humbled” by the announcement and congratulated Sohn and Davidson on their selections. “It is an honor to work with my colleagues on the Commission and the agency’s talented staff 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,” she said.

In a tweet, Sohn said she is “deeply honored to be nominated by [Biden] to serve as FCC Commissioner. If confirmed, I’ll work to fulfill his goal of ensuring that every household in the US has robust broadband internet. Congratulations to [Rosenworcel] on her ascension to Chair – well deserved!”

Observers had speculated that a delay in making these nominations could hamper the Democratic party’s broadband policy agenda. The wait caused enough concern for educational institutions and senators representing 17 states to write letters urging Biden to nominate Rosenworcel. Even former FCC commissioner Michael O’Rielly, a Republican, said he was perplexed by the delay in Rosenworcel’s nomination.

Industry praise

Companies and industry association came out to praise the nominations as important steps forward to complete a commission that has before it an ambitious agenda to provide universal access to high-speed internet across the country.

“Having a fully staffed Commission will allow the fast paced communications industry to more quickly deliver results to American consumers,” said the Rural Wireless Association in a statement, which praised the nominations. “Rosenworcel has been a good steward as Acting Chair these past 9 months, and for over 30 years, Gigi Sohn has relentlessly served the public interest and kept Big Tech in check.”

Adrianne Furniss, the executive director of the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society for which Sohn is currently a senior fellow, said in a statement that Sohn is “not only a broadband and telecommunications policy expert, but is expert at mastering complex policy issues, bringing disparate voices together to find common purpose, and pursuing the public interest.

“I’ve seen firsthand how effective she is as a leader who identifies, organizes, and partners with public interest groups; philanthropy; bipartisan federal, state, and local representatives; academics; and companies large and small,” Furniss added.

Matt Schruers, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, said the commission at full strength “is important as issues from net neutrality to spectrum to the expansion of high speed broadband access are more necessary than ever as more people rely on internet connectivity during the pandemic…Having a seasoned DC veteran lead the NTIA will further help the administration advance its goals toward 5G and better internet connectivity.”

Claude Aiken, president and CEO of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, said in a statement that each of the three nominees “brings into these core positions years of experience, deep connections, and legal and administrative know-how,” adding the commission will finally be operating at full capacity to “benefit American consumers, our economy, as well as those who linger without competitive and evolving broadband solutions in the digital divide.”

The Internet Innovation Alliance said in a statement that Rosenworcel has “proven time and again that she is an astute and balanced decisionmaker who is highly capable of bringing forward-looking policy prescriptions to the Commission and serving the best interests of the American people.” The association also had high praise for Sohn as “well-qualified and respected,” bringing years of policy and consumer advocacy” to the agency.

Michael Powell, president and CEO of the NCTA Internet and Television Association, congratulated the nominees and for Rosenworcel’s work during the pandemic, stating that the three will now play a crucial role in policy design to “promote continued investment and innovation in wired and wireless broadband networks – including the growth of licensed and unlicensed platforms – and in supporting Congress’ clear direction to build next generation networks in unserved and underserved areas.”

USTelecom President and CEO Jonathan Spalter said of Davidson’s nomination that Biden “has nominated a person with a range of technology and innovation experience, and a perspective that crosses the public, private and non-profit spheres.”

Joan Marsh, executive vice president of federal regulatory relations, highlighted in a congratulatory statement Rosenworcel’s accomplishments on programs including the Emergency Broadband Benefit and Emergency Connectivity Fund. She also noted Sohn’s “significant experience in the telecom policy arena.

“We look forward to working with her and her colleagues as the agency addresses the many pressing issues before it,” the statement added.

Noah Campbell, co-founder and CEO of telecom RS Access, which has been fighting to have the 12 GHz spectrum shared between satellite and 5G mobile service providers, said Rosenworcel has shown “tremendous leadership by bringing hundreds of megahertz of 5G spectrum to market in her roles at the FCC. She has been a staunch advocate for freeing more mid-band spectrum, while delivering on the promise to connect all Americans and close the digital divide.” He also congratulated Sohn and praised her commitment to public service.

Some background on nominees

Rosenworcel, a lawyer by training and graduate of New York University School of Law, would come into the helm as a long-time FCC veteran, having served as commissioner since her nomination by then-President Barack Obama in 2011, and before that an advisor to FCC Commissioner Michael Copps. During this time, she voted in favor of net neutrality rules, which have been quashed under previous agency head Ajit Pai and will serve as one of the most potent issues to review by this new-look commission.

Rosenworcel has also pressed national security issues to the front, having taken action on suspected threats to the country’s networks by proposing to ban licenses to companies with ties to the Chinese Communist government. She has advocated to diversify radio technology equipment by advocating for more open technologies for lower cost and better security.

Sohn, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, is a distinguished fellow at Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law and Policy. Beside her advocacy work at the Benton Institute, she was also for 12 years the president and CEO of internet advocacy group Public Knowledge, before becoming counselor to the chairman of the FCC in 2015, according to her LinkedIn profile. She has also held fellowship positions at the Open Society Foundations and the Mozilla Foundation.

Davidson, a graduate of Yale Law School, was in the early 2000s a professor at Georgetown University and director of public policy for the Americas at Google in Washington D.C. He served director of digital economy at the Department of Commerce, as vice president and director of the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, and as tech policy fellow and then senior advisor at the Mozilla Foundation, according to his LinkedIn page.

Assistant Editor Ahmad Hathout has spent the last half-decade reporting on the Canadian telecommunications and media industries for leading publications. He started the scoop-driven news site downup.io to make Canadian telecom news more accessible and digestible. Follow him on Twitter @ackmet

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FCC

FCC Eliminates Emergency Broadband Benefit Enrollment Freeze

The commission says an enrollment freeze is no longer necessary as the Infrastructure Act’s Affordable Connectivity Program takes effect.

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FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, November 29, 2021 – The Federal Communications Commission said Friday it is axing rules requiring a freeze on enrollment at the initial end of the Emergency Broadband Benefit program.

That’s because the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law two weeks ago, extends the program indefinitely and rebrands it to the Affordable Connectivity Program. The FCC is currently gathering comments on how it should manage the transition to the new program.

The freeze was initially planned to avoid claims volatility and to allow for more certain financial projections in the EBB’s final months when funds were running low. Based on current budget projections, there is no longer concern that the EBB will run out of funding before the Affordable Connectivity Program takes effect, the FCC said.

In its announcement on Friday, the FCC also waived requirements for customer notice on the end of the EBB, which mandated 15- and 30-day consumer notices.

These mandates were eliminated to prevent any alarm or confusion over the EBB Program ending, as consumers will continue to receive service for 60 days following the program’s end due to provisions of the IIJA.

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FCC

FCC Watchdog Finds Evidence of Fraud in Emergency Broadband Benefit

Inspector General report finds “dozens” of cases of EBB abuse across the country.

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FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, November 24, 2021 – The watchdog that monitors fraud and abuse of Federal Communications Commission programs said it has found evidence that service providers are enrolling into the Emergency Broadband Benefit program more students than exist at some schools.

The Office of Inspector General said in a Monday report that service providers, who are reimbursed from the program for offering subsidized broadband services to schools, and their sales agents have been abusing the program by enrolling more “households that claimed they have a dependent child” than students “who are actually enrolled in those schools.”

The report found “dozens” of eligible schools across the country are overenrolled six months into the program. That includes schools in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, New York and Florida.

The most “egregious examples” of such abuse, the OIG said, came out of Florida, with one example of a school that had enrolled 1884 households in the EBB program, when OIG research showed that “no more than 200 students attend” the school. Another school with 152 students had 1048 households enrolled in the program. The OIG said it will not disclose which schools to preserve its on-going investigation.

The report notes that additional households were blocked from enrolling in the program “by other program safeguards.”

Majority of abuse done by “handful” of providers

“Evidence shows this is not consumer-driven fraud – enrollment data directly links certain providers and their sales agents to these enrollments,” the report said, adding the same sales agents who overenrolled students in the aforementioned schools also did the same in other state schools.

“Sales agents who work for just a handful of EBB providers are responsible for the majority of this fraudulent enrollment activity,” it added.

Other examples of abuse, the report said, includes failure to identify the dependent child, the repeated use of the provider retail address as the address of homes served, and more than 2000 EBB households were noted as being more than 50 miles from their schools.

“As EBB providers incentivize sales agents to maximize enrollments by providing commission-based compensation, many of the abuses that once plagued the FCC’s Lifeline program have reappeared in the EBB program,” the report concluded, adding these providers will be liable for violations.

“If providers discover enrollment problems, OIG reminds them of their obligation to take appropriate remedial measures,” the report added. “Providers who defraud FCC programs by violating program enrollment rules and claim support for those households will be held accountable and may be subject to civil or criminal sanctions.”

The $3.2-billion EBB program, which launched in May, provides a subsidy of $50 per month to eligible low-income households and $75 per month for those living on native tribal lands, as well as a one-time reimbursement on a device. The program has enrolled over five million households so far.

The FCC is currently asking the public for comment on how it should handle the program’s expansion into a permanent fixture as a result of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed by President Joe Biden last week.

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FCC

FCC Requires Telecom Companies to Let Subscribers Text to Suicide Prevention Hotline

The measure would increase access for those seeking emergency mental health assistance.

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WASHINGTON, November 18, 2021 – The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to require providers of telecommunications to permit individuals to text directly to a three digit number, 988, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

The suicide prevention lifeline is a national network that offers free and confidential support in Americans in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. The move increases access for individuals in crisis by  routing text messages sent to 988 to the group’s 10-digit number, 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).

The vote to establish text-to-988 comes after Americans spent months isolated under stay-at-home orders in 2020. The CDC reported that last year, 44,834 individuals died by suicide in the United States. Experts have suggested that the pandemic has increased mental health struggles for Americans.  The FCC has repeatedly recognized suicide’s impact on at-risk communities, including youth, the Black community, the LGBT community, Veterans, and the deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind, and people who have speech disabilities that affect communication.

The FCC required text providers to support three digit dialing and text messages to 988 by July 16, 2022. “This uniform deadline will help to prevent confusion and facilitate unified outreach campaigns,” said Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, who described 988 as “life-saving work.” “I am pleased to approve today’s decision because Text-to-988 will save lives in vulnerable and underserved communities by taking advantage of this vital communications channel,” he said.

Commenting on her vote to approve the measure, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel noted that LGBT youth are almost five times as likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. “These young people deserve a future,” she said. “They deserve support. And that support should be simple to access. Today we help make that possible.”

Americans sent an estimated 2.2 trillion text messages in 2020. Texting to 988 may be an especially important option for young people, who may prefer the anonymity and convenience of texting a crisis counselor instead of engaging in a phone conversation, said the FCC.

The agency urged Americans who need help during the transition to 988 should contact the Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK) and through online chats.

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