FCC Vacancies Stunt Biden’s Internet Ambitions
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The drumbeat of advocacy for universal internet access in the U.S. became louder during the Covid-19 pandemic and was amplified by Joe Biden early in his presidency as he laid out a New Deal-like vision for the future of infrastructure and connectivity. Unfortunately, though, an agency responsible for carrying out the specifics of that vision has been paralyzed by a baffling situation that could inadvertently put Republican appointees of former President Donald Trump in the driver’s seat.
More than eight months into his term, Biden still hasn’t nominated an official leader of the Federal Communications Commission or filled the agency’s other vacancy. It’s suspected that the delay is due to more urgent matters on the White House’s agenda: the continuing public-health crisis, a partisan showdown over the debt ceiling, wrangling over the infrastructure bill and another even larger spending proposal. The FCC is supposed to have five commissioners. But if Biden doesn’t act, it could soon be left with just one Democrat, two Republicans and two vacancies. That is a formula for not accomplishing much of substance.
The implications of a lame-duck FCC are painfully far-reaching. The agency has important work to do after the pandemic laid bare the U.S. digital divide, which continues to contribute immensely to the country’s enduring racial and economic inequalities. Whether someone is seeking employment or trying to obtain unemployment benefits, the process pretty much requires an internet connection, and having one certainly has made it easier to see a doctor and obtain a Covid vaccine. But for too long, internet access has been treated as a luxury rather than a utility, in turn shaping policies that have stunted upward mobility for Black Americans and rural residents. It starts as early as school age, with the pandemic forcing some kids to do homework in fast-food parking lots where they could use free Wi-Fi. Microsoft Corp. estimated in November 2019 that about 157 million people in the U.S. weren’t using the internet at broadband speeds, generously defined as 25 megabits per second — that’s roughly half the population.
Still, it’s not as if Biden doesn’t have a clear choice. Jessica Rosenworcel, who was widely expected to lead the FCC, is the acting chair, and her agenda aligns with that of the administration. Unless she is nominated and confirmed, however, she will have to leave at the end of the year. The other Democrat is Geoffrey Starks, who would then be limited to issues that can earn support from one of the two Republican commissioners, Brendan Carr and Nathan Simington. A group of senators sent a letter to Biden this week urging him to nominate Rosenworcel. Any other candidate could take months to confirm.
While the telecommunications industry has turned its attention to rolling out more robust 5G wireless networks, the pandemic showed why expanding home internet access — including improving affordability and speeds — should take priority. Billions of dollars have been allocated to the FCC precisely for internet subsidies, but not enough people who might qualify know about the federal-assistance program, which since May has offered eligible households a discount of up to $50 a month for broadband service. Of the $3.2 billion available, only $600 million in claims have been made to date, according to Universal Service Administrative Co. Rosenworcel has said outreach funding is needed for community partners that could more quickly sign up consumers. The bipartisan infrastructure bill that’s awaiting a House vote includes an additional $14 billion to extend these subsidies, though it reduces the monthly discount to $30.
That’s just one example of a matter that carries immediacy but is stuck in bureaucratic molasses. And it’s not even a tremendously controversial one. Restoring net-neutrality protections, on the other hand, remains a chief goal that this FCC can’t move on without a Democratic majority. Biden’s sweeping executive order in July to promote competition in U.S. industries encouraged regulators to consider net-neutrality rules, which were adopted under former President Barack Obama and then repealed under Trump and his FCC chair, Ajit Pai. Biden is not helping that happen.
Biden’s competition concerns also zeroed in on landlords striking exclusive arrangements with certain service providers on behalf of tenants, limiting their options. Another directive is for the FCC to push ahead with a “broadband nutrition label” that would make it easier for consumers to compare rates for internet packages, similar to the standardized nutrition labels found on packaged-food boxes.
Without a permanent FCC chair, the push to make internet access fairer for all Americans will remain just another talking point.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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