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Meet the woman who will bring back net neutrality

Jessica Rosenworcel, who is set to become the first woman to head the FCC, will also focus on closing the digital divide.

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
8 min read
Jessica Rosenworcel

Jessica Rosenworcel will likely be confirmed as the FCC's first woman chair.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of children to attend school via the internet, Jessica Rosenworcel was sounding the alarm about US students who lacked access to broadband. 

Rosenworcel, who has served as acting chair of the Federal Communications Commission over the past 10 months, coined the term "homework gap" in a 2014 Miami Herald op-ed to describe families with school-age children who lack broadband access at home and how that lack of access means students couldn't do homework assigned online. And with that she brought attention to a major problem for families, particularly in low-income and Black and brown communities and in rural areas. 

When the pandemic began in the spring of 2020, more than 15 million of the nation's 50.7 million public school students lacked adequate access to broadband, according to a survey from Common Sense Media. The study also found that about 10% of public school teachers nationwide also didn't have sufficient internet access for online learning.

Locating local internet providers

"I've been talking about the homework gap for years," Rosenworcel said in an interview with CNET in September.  "During this pandemic, that homework gap turned into an educational chasm."

Now that President Biden has named her permanent chair of the FCC, Rosenworcel, the first woman in the agency's history to hold that title, will be in a position to fully tackle this problem, including allocating $14 billion in federal funds to create a permanent subsidy program for affordable broadband. She's also expected to bring back the Obama-era net neutrality protections that Republicans dismantled in 2017. 

Locating local internet providers

During her Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday, Rosenworcel reiterated her support for the protections that prohibit broadband providers from blocking or slowing down internet access. She also made it clear that she would support reinstating the FCC's authority to regulate broadband, something that Republicans and the broadband industry have opposed. 

"I support net neutrality." she said. "I supported it in 2015, and then I opposed the rollback in 2017." 

Educators and broadband advocates, who have been pushing for the Senate to quickly vote to confirm her before her term expires at the end of the year, say she's more than capable of taking on these issues. 

"She was one of those people at the FCC who, even before the pandemic, understood that broadband access was an issue of equity, especially for marginalized communities," said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association. "When schools were closed and we saw images and reports of families going to fast food restaurants just so they could access Wi-Fi to turn in assignments, she was really quite passionate about that not being OK. And she lifted her voice in a way that could tell those very real stories to get something done about it."

Making history

With a confirmation likely, Rosenworcel will be the first woman in the agency's 96-year history to be named as permanent chair. 

Rep. Anna Eshoo, a Democrat from California who has worked with her for many years, lauded Rosenworcel's experience but also said it was a "great sign of progress for our country" that the agency would finally have a woman named as its permanent chair.

"Rosenworcel has years of experience advocating for women in technology and championing innovation, net neutrality, public safety, universal broadband and consumer protections," Eshoo said. 

Rosenworcel has used her position to mentor and highlight the accomplishments of other women. After fellow Democrat Mignon Clyburn, who in 2013 became the first woman to serve as acting chair of the FCC, left the agency, Rosenworcel suddenly found herself as the only woman. So she decided to launch a podcast called Broadband Conversations. For each episode she interviewed only women who she said "are breaking new ground and forging new paths in technology, media and innovation."

"Rather than sitting on panel after panel talking about women in technology, and what might be possible in the next generation," she said in an interview celebrating the first year of the podcast, "I just decided here and now, what can we do to amplify the voices of women we know; women we think are doing really cool things in technology, and make sure more people know about them and meet them."

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

Long career

It's this can-do attitude that has made Rosenworcel stand out in her career. 

The 50-year-old Connecticut native and mother of two school-aged children graduated from Wesleyan University in 1993 before earning a law degree from New York University six years later. She then moved to Washington, DC, where she's been ever since.

In an interview in 2019 for her podcast, Rosenworcel admitted that while attending school, she never intended to move to Washington or work on Capitol Hill. But during her confirmation hearing this week, she talked about how the calling toward public service was something she learned from her family. Her father had served in the Air Force, and later as a medical doctor ran a clinic for hypertension and kidney failure in Hartford, Connecticut. Her mother helped run a soup kitchen there for more than two decades. 

After a brief stint at a law firm in Washington working on communications policy, she went to work at the FCC in 1999, and later became counsel to Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps, a champion of pro-consumer causes.

From there, she served as senior communications counsel for the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, under the leadership of Sens. John D. Rockefeller IV and Daniel Inouye. In 2012 she was nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate to serve as an FCC commissioner. 

It was while working closely with Rockefeller that she dug into the issue of public safety, a topic she has continued to support as an FCC commissioner and as acting chair. A decade after 9/11, she worked with the public safety sector to secure wireless spectrum to create FirstNet, the first nationwide wireless network dedicated to public safety. On her podcast, she said she was drawn to the issue not only because it dealt with spectrum issues, but because her mother had lost a cousin as a result of the terrorist attack. 

"It was the only outstanding recommendation from the 9/11 Commission that Washington hadn't acted on, that Washington hadn't done a thing about," she said. Because of her professional as well as personal connection, she added, "the opportunity to try to be part of the solution here was really appealing. And I spent time working with Senator Rockefeller and, eventually, the White House developing a plan to repurpose some of our airwaves so that first responders could use them."

Jeffrey D. Johnson, chief executive of the Western Fire Chiefs Association, said that Rosenworcel's help with getting FirstNet established was crucial to making the effort a reality. He remembered meeting with her in the conference room of Rockefeller's office, and he said her honest and optimistic, yet practical approach was invaluable. 

"There was plenty of skepticism at the time about whether this could really be achieved," he said. "What I appreciated about her, she was candid about what was realistic to achieve and what we ought to consider."

At her confirmation hearing on Wednesday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, heralded her experience and dedication.

"She has really been an energetic and aggressive champion of consumer causes of privacy and net neutrality," he said. "I've worked with her on fighting the abusive effects of robocalls and efforts to provide spectrum coordination. But apart from all of those specific issues, she has a very extraordinary ability to put complex issues in terms that everyday Americans can understand."

Consensus builder

Much of her tenure as acting chair has been marked by consensus. Largely out of necessity because the agency is split 2-2 between Republicans and Democrats, Rosenworcel has thus far tackled uncontroversial issues, such as expanding the fight against robocalls and ensuring national security by banning Chinese companies from US networks

She's also pushed to improve the FCC's flawed broadband maps, which are used to figure out how to distribute the billions of dollars in federal funding the FCC and other agencies offer each year to subsidize the cost of building out broadband infrastructure.

As acting chair, she's managed to navigate the deadlocked commission with little drama or fanfare. But Rosenworcel has also shown that she's not afraid to rock the boat for issues and causes she feels are important -- even when her own party is in control. 

In 2014 at the height of the battle to write net neutrality rules, she broke with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a fellow Democrat, to push for stronger protections to ensure broadband providers couldn't create "fast lanes" on the internet. 

In the end, Wheeler revised his proposal and the outcome was a set of rules in 2015 that went far beyond what the FCC had previously proposed. When Republicans took control of the FCC and Trump-appointed chair Ajit Pai dismantled the Obama-era rules, Rosenworcel pushed back. 

"I am not shy about speaking up and making some noise," she told CNET in an interview in 2017 after the rules had been repealed.

Net neutrality battle brewing

Rosenworcel's nomination -- and the nomination of Gigi Sohn, an adviser to Wheeler and a lawyer who made her career advocating for net neutrality and other pro-consumer causes, to fill the vacant Democratic seat on the FCC -- will help fulfill Biden's promise to get net neutrality regulations back on the books. In July, he issued an executive order urging the FCC to restore the Obama-era rules and to take other measures to promote broadband competition, including asking the agency to require broadband companies to provide transparency on pricing. 

The big question becomes how far the FCC will go in reestablishing the rules. Will it simply restore the rules passed in 2015? These rules require internet service providers, like Comcast and Verizon, to treat all internet traffic equally and bars them from offering "fast lanes" so that some companies could pay for their customers to access sites and services faster than via their competitors. The regulation also reclassified broadband as a so-called Title II service under the Communications Act, which gave the FCC the power to regulate broadband.

It's unclear where Rosenworcel stands on going beyond the bright-lines rules of no blocking, no throttling and no paid prioritization that were outlined in the 2015 rules. But she's very clear about the role the FCC needs to play once Democrats take charge and reinstate net neutrality to ensure that affordable, reliable broadband is available for all Americans. 

"I think the impact of the rollback in 2017 is broader than just net neutrality ... because it took the FCC away from oversight of broadband," she said during her confirmation hearing this week. "And coming out of this pandemic. I think all of us know that we need some oversight because it's become such an essential service for day to day life."