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FCC is laser-focused on erasing the digital divide and crushing robocalls

Acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel tells CNET she's hopeful that the FCC can solve these big problems.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
12 min read
Acting FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel

Acting FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel says the pandemic has presented policymakers with an opportunity to finally close the digital divide. 

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

For Jessica Rosenworcel, acting chair of the Federal Communications Commission, the moment is now to get the US on the right track toward ending the digital divide. That's what she's been trying to do with an influx of federal money aimed at getting Americans connected to the internet during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The crisis, which has hit low-income Americans and people of color especially hard, has brought attention to the digital divide and has spurred Congress to act, Rosenworcel said in an interview with CNET earlier this month.

"Out of crisis is opportunity," she said. "With this crisis, we've ended the days where we talk about broadband as a 'nice-to-have.' Policymakers everywhere now understand it's a 'need-to-have' for everyone across this country."

Locating local internet providers

In addition to highlighting the problem that millions of Americans don't have access to broadband at all, the pandemic has revealed that millions of Americans aren't connected because they simply can't afford their broadband bills. As it became clear last year that Americans needed broadband to do everything from go to work to attend school to access health care during the pandemic, Congress committed federal COVID relief dollars to provide subsidies to millions of Americans to keep them online. 

Watch this: It's time to end the digital divide and annoying robocalls, says FCC acting chair

Now a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure spending package that the House is expected to vote on later this week will put more money -- $65 billion -- toward fixing the problem. It will fund the deployment of broadband where it doesn't yet exist. And where broadband is available, the funding will create permanent subsidy programs to help low-income Americans afford service. 

Locating local internet providers

Since stepping into the role as acting FCC chair in January, Rosenworcel, an eight-year veteran of the agency, has had a unique view into how these subsidy programs can help tackle the affordability conundrum.

While programs like the $50 monthly Emergency Broadband Benefit have had some problems, like some broadband companies reportedly upselling people into more expensive plans, they've helped more than 6 million Americans fund their internet access since May 12. According to a study last year by the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, the US has the highest average monthly internet prices when compared to other countries in North America, Europe and Asia. On average, the monthly bill in the US is $84.37, which includes $68.38 for internet service and $15.99 for equipment rental fees.

 "What's become clear is that affordability is a really big issue in the digital divide," she said. "And we're going to need programs like the EBB to help solve it."

Rosenworcel also acknowledged another problem that Americans face: the persistence of illegal robocalls. Earlier this summer, the FCC mandated that all major phone companies implement a technology called Stir/Shaken to cut down on spoofed phone calls. But criminals have been adapting their techniques to get around the new restrictions, including turning to fraudulent text messages. Rosenworcel said the problem has no easy fix and admitted the 1990s law that gives the FCC authority to go after these bad actors is in need of updates to handle 21st century technology.

"I don't know about you, but I wasn't texting in 1991," she said. "So it's like fitting the proverbial square peg in a round hole -- figuring out how to take these new technologies and fitting them into old laws." 

Ultimately ending this scourge of robo-scams will take federal and state agencies working together, Rosenworcel said.

"I think with coordinated activity -- with many more mallets smacking this problem -- we're going to be more capable of bringing it to a stop," she said. 

Below is an edited excerpt of our conversation.

The FCC has been distributing millions of dollars in subsidies to households to pay for broadband service as part of the Emergency Broadband Benefit. Now Congress is working to make that subsidy permanent through the infrastructure bill. But the EBB program hasn't been without critics. What lessons has the FCC learned that will guide it when administering a new program? 
Rosenworcel: This pandemic has exposed a really hard truth that we have a digital divide in this country that's very real and very big. We need to find new ways to tackle it, so that everyone, everywhere has access to broadband. One of those ways is what you mentioned, the Emergency Broadband Benefit. 

This program is a really big deal. It's the nation's largest-ever broadband affordability program. We've never had anything this big before. It helps low-income households get online and stay online. It provides $50 a month in support. That number goes up to $75 a month on tribal lands. You can also get a discounted laptop or tablet computer.

In the short time [that the EBB] has been available, we've had more than 5.5 million households enroll, which really demonstrates that this is a program that we need to help make sure that every household can get online and stay online. 

Congress has taken note, and the legislation that's pending on Capitol Hill looks at how they can extend this program. 

One of the benefits of that extension is that they're looking at what worked and what didn't. They're putting in some new consumer protections to prevent things like upselling to these households. That's a really good thing. They're also taking a look at lowering the dollar value and support from $50 a month to $30 a month. That's more challenging. But when you stand back and look, what's become clear is that affordability is a really big issue in the digital divide. And we're going to need programs like this to help solve it.

How do you make sure that funds get to the people who need it most? For instance, how do you make sure immigrants, who may face a language barrier or who may not know how to navigate the process of signing up, get access?
One of the things we realized early on was that if we preached about this program from Washington, we wouldn't reach those who need this benefit most. We knew we had to find trusted entities in communities across the country who could get the word out. 

We have more than 30,000 partners working with us across the country on this now, which includes groups from Boys and Girls Clubs to Meals on Wheels programs. We've involved faith institutions. The NFL is running public service announcements. We're leveraging small groups, big groups and everything in between. 

What we've realized is that those trusted actors are really powerful in their communities. We will continue to work with them to get the word out and build trust in this program, because we can't do it all ourselves. 

We're making progress because even now we're getting about 200,000 new households signing up a week. A lot of that is because of the good work of our partners out in the field.

When introducing his infrastructure plan, President Biden mentioned there could be a place for price regulation. Is that something you'd consider to make broadband more affordable?
The focus of our efforts right now is how do we make sure 100% of this country has affordable, reliable, consistent access to broadband. We know affordability is a challenge. We've now got this program to help with it. But we also know deployment is a challenge, and we've got to figure out how to get the infrastructure to the places in this country that don't have it. I see that as the focus of a lot of the $65 billion that's being bandied about in the current legislation on Capitol Hill. 

The most important thing for the United States right now is to adopt a policy to get 100% of our households online. It will take identifying every tool, every word in every statute -- old and new -- to help us do that.

So could price regulation be a tool in your toolbox to get 100% of Americans affordable broadband? 
We've got to find ways to make sure that this service is affordable for everyone. I'd leave it at that right now. At the moment we're working with the Emergency Broadband Benefit program. But affordability is an issue in our nation's digital divide. We've just got to pay attention to it because it makes a meaningful difference if we have some households online and yet others who are not able to get online because they can't afford that monthly bill. 

I know you've been a big proponent of the FCC combating digital redlining. That's the practice of internet service providers avoiding lower-income areas -- typically neighborhoods with large populations of people of color -- where they don't think they'll make money. What can the FCC, or more broadly, what can the federal government do to fix that problem?
First of all, I think the fact that we're having a conversation about digital redlining is a good thing. We've got communities in this country that for too long have been overserved or underserved and overlooked. We've got to figure out how to address that. 

It's a problem in rural areas and urban areas alike. 

Congress is looking at legislation now that would ask the FCC to run a proceeding on digital redlining that would develop models for states and localities and also develop a special complaint process. If Congress passes that legislation, that's an area where we'll do some more work. 

The most important thing we can do right now is map where broadband is and is not across this country, so we know where those deficiencies are. As you know, the FCC data about where service is, and is not, is not up to snuff for the digital age. We need to be a whole lot more precise. We're working very hard on that right now, and that's going to produce some meaningful information to help us address digital redlining, too.

When do you expect the new FCC maps to be ready? Should we expect it next year or sooner?
The right time to have set up an effort to build really good, honest and accurate maps was four or five years ago. The second best time is right now. 

The minute that we took the reins of the agency, we set up a task force and we've done a lot since then. We put in place a data architect to build systems to take in all of this data. We actually set up a statistically valid system for crowdsourcing, so that when we get data in, we can ask you and your neighbors: "Does this look right?" 

The odds are you know what's going on in your house, in your backyard, better than we do. We've got to create a model that takes in all of that lived experience that people have across this country so that the map actually reflects what's happening in their communities. 

We are in the middle of a process of securing a government contractor to build a broadband data fabric, which is like a foundation for a lot of this data. We're in the throes of that contracting process now, so I have to be careful about what I can say about it. 

But I will say that I wish the process had moved faster. 

One of the other things I'm really proud that we've done is we've just tested our systems. We worked with the four largest wireless carriers in the country on a voluntary basis. And we secured a lot of 4G data from them. For the first time ever, we [the FCC] asked them all to use exactly the same propagation models with exactly the same cell loading characteristics, etc. 

What we wound up with is this apples-to-apples comparison about how and where 4G services work in this country. It's a map that is many times more precise than the one you might get if you go in and just try to sign up for service. So I'd encourage everyone to go to the FCC website, type in their address and take a look. It was a real test run of our systems, and I'm excited, because we're just getting started.

Let's shift gears and talk about everybody's most hated subject: robocalls. 
I can't stand them, too! There's nothing like sitting down with your family to dinner and the phone rings. Then it's just someone on the other end who wants to sell you something you didn't ask for, don't want and don't need. For too many years the FCC has been slow to catch up. We're trying to change that. 

I know a large number of the illegal robocalls that Americans receive come from overseas. What's the FCC doing to address that particular issue? 
That's a great point. We're hearing from a lot of the domestic carriers that an increasing number of calls are coming from abroad -- the ones that look like they're scams. Those represent a real challenge because tracing them back and going into jurisdictions where there might be some actors who can scurry away before we can find them is challenging. In a lot of cases, there could be a difficult diplomatic relationship with the United States. But we've got to find ways to stop them. 

This month we're voting at the FCC on a new effort to crack down on robocalls from abroad. We've got a mitigation database and Stir/Shaken in our networks. At the risk of being technocratic, what we're trying to do is put new requirements on the first carrier that brings that call from abroad into the United States, which we call the gateway provider. We have to stop these calls at that source so they don't wind up reaching us at the dinner table at night. 

So I hope my colleagues will vote to support this proposal to really crack down on robocalls from abroad. It's a terrific proposal, and I think it's necessary right now because we're seeing what we think is an increase in calls from abroad.

How does this effort actually work in terms of the "gateway providers" who aren't in US jurisdiction? 
If you want to send a call to the United States, you actually have to register in our database. This is part of our robocall mitigation strategy.  But there are some providers abroad who can send their calls to an intermediary provider, who then sends it to someone else. Along the way they've masked what that traffic is all about. Then it comes into the United States, and we can't quite tell if it's a scam. 

What we're doing is saying that the first gateway provider into the United States has some responsibilities. By imposing these requirements to identify where the traffic is coming from, we're going to stop illegal robocalls before they reach you in your home. We think this has been a loophole that's been in our system, which has been leading to an increase in robocalls from abroad. So we're going to tackle it.

Another thing that experts have told me is there's been a big increase in fraudulent robo-text messages. Is that something that the FCC is also looking at?
We're taking a look at that, too. In many respects, our primary law for governing this is the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991. I don't know about you, but I wasn't texting in 1991. So it's like fitting the proverbial square peg in a round hole, figuring out how to take these new technologies and fitting them into old laws. But we've got to up our efforts in every way, shape and form, because scammers move fast. The FCC is going to have to move just as fast, if not quicker, to catch them.

When I spoke with Commissioner Brendan Carr in June, he said that this is like playing a game of Whack-a-Mole, because the criminals perpetuating these calls are constantly finding new ways to scam people. Do you think we're ever going to end this?
Sticking with this metaphor, if it's a game of Whack-a-Mole, I don't want the FCC to be the only one whacking at these folks. We've reached out to our colleagues at the Federal Trade Commission, at the attorneys general offices all across the country, at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and we're finding everyone who has some authority to go after not just the calls but the scam artists behind them. 

With coordinated activity -- with many more mallets smacking this problem -- we're going to be more capable of bringing it to a stop. Just to give you an example of that, the FCC just issued its largest-ever fine under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. (Editors' note: The fine levied against Texas-based telemarketers totaled $225 million.) In doing so, we worked very closely with the Ohio attorney general. I think more of that federal-to-federal and federal-to-state coordination is going to be necessary in order for us to be successful.

Do you know if these efforts so far are having an effect? When will consumers start to feel a change? 
This summer we required in all networks, for the first time, the Stir/Shaken technology. This is a way to make sure that our networks capture these scam calls before they get to you. They stop spoofed calls. Over time those systems are going to grow even stronger. We're going to see this technology deployed in more places. Really early information suggests that we're making progress. But we're just getting started.