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Jessica Rosenworcel is about to make FCC history

Following her Senate reconfirmation, she is is set to become the first woman to serve as the official -- not acting -- head of the agency in its 87-year history.

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
4 min read

Jessica Rosenworcel is set to become the first woman to lead the FCC.

Tom Williams/Getty Images

The Senate voted 68-31 to reconfirm Jessica Rosenworcel to the Federal Communications Commission, setting the stage for her to make history as the first woman to chair the agency. 

President Joe Biden named Rosenworcel acting chair in January. In October, he announced she'd become permanent chair. But Rosenworcel, who's served on the FCC since 2012, first needed to be reconfirmed by the Senate. Her second term on the FCC ended in the middle of this year. And by law, she would've been required to step down from the FCC at the end of the year if she hadn't been reconfirmed by the Senate. 

With Senate approval finalized, Biden will be able to make Rosenworcel permanent chair. This is the first time in the agency's 87-year history that a woman has been named permanent chair. Mignon Clyburn was named interim chair of the FCC in 2013 until Tom Wheeler was named permanent chair by President Barack Obama. Rosenworcel acknowledged the significance of her appointment in a statement. 

Locating local internet providers

"It is a tremendous honor to be confirmed and designated as the first permanent Chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission. I would like to thank President Biden for the opportunity," she said.

Broadband and net neutrality top to-do list

As chair, Rosenworcel is expected to work on closing the digital divide to ensure affordable broadband access in underserved rural and urban communities. One area of particular focus will be ending the "homework gap," a term Rosenworcel coined in a 2014 editorial that  describes families with school-age children who lack broadband access at home and how that lack of access means students can't do homework assigned online. In an interview with CNET in September, she noted that during the pandemic when millions of school children were forced to access class online, the gap turned into "an educational chasm."

Locating local internet providers

Rosenworcel is also a big supporter of net neutrality. She voted in favor of the 2015 rules that were put in place under President Barack Obama. And she opposed the 2017 repeal of those rules when Republicans took control of the FCC. During her Senate confirmation hearing last month, 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'd support reinstating the FCC's authority to regulate broadband, something Republicans and the broadband industry have opposed. 

Her fellow Democrats applauded her renomination and ascension as chair.

"Chairwoman Rosenworcel has served as a tireless advocate for consumer protection in today's digital landscape," Sen. Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said in a statement. "Now more than ever, the FCC needs a chair who understands the importance of net neutrality and critical protections for broadband users, and I know Chairwoman Rosenworcel is up for the task."

Though Rosenworcel won the support of many key Republicans, including Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, other Republicans opposed her renomination due to her support for net neutrality. 

Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, said he opposed the chairwoman's new term because Rosenworcel wants to reinstate net neutrality rules.

"I've said for years that the internet should remain open and free, and any attempt by the FCC to use Title II to create net neutrality restrictions would turn it into a government-regulated utility and stifle our nation's dynamic and robust e-commerce sector," he said in a statement. He continued that Rosenworcel's efforts to reinstate Obama-era net neutrality regulations would lead "to legal and marketplace uncertainty."

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

Still, Rosenworcel is respected among industry players. And consumer groups and telecommunications providers alike applauded her confirmation. 

"Chairwoman Rosenworcel has been a strong advocate for ensuring every American has access to affordable broadband," Kathy Grillo, Verizon senior vice president of policy and government affairs said in a statement. "Our company looks forward to working with the Chairwoman on these goals and more in the years to come."

FCC deadlock continues

Even with Rosenworcel confirmed, the FCC is still deadlocked at 2-2 between Democrats and Republicans. In order for Rosenworcel to do anything on net neutrality, she'll need Biden's other nominee, Gigi Sohn, to be confirmed. Sohn, who had advised former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and has built her career on advocating for net neutrality and other pro-consumer causes, had her confirmation hearing last week. While Senators on both sides of the political spectrum acknowledge Sohn's expertise in telecom law and policy, some Republicans have expressed concern that she's too partisan. 

When she was nominated in October, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, tweeted, "I will do everything in my power to convince colleagues on both sides of the aisle to reject this extreme nominee."

The Senate Commerce Committee has yet to vote on Sohn's nomination.