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This FCC commissioner vows to keep looking out for you

Jessica Rosenworcel calls herself an “impatient optimist.” Even in the minority, the Democrat aims to make sure that deregulation doesn’t hurt consumers.

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
FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel

FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel was originally appointed by President Obama and was reappointed by President Trump.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel is back. And she's ready to make a ruckus to protect consumers. 

Rosenworcel, who previously served from 2012 until January of this year, was forced to leave office after Republican lawmakers last year refused to act on her renomination. Why? They worried she could have given Democrats a majority on the FCC.  

Former Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, declined for months to say whether he would leave office when the Republican administration took power. Wheeler ended up stepping down from his post on Jan. 20, the day after President Donald Trump's inauguration.

After several months, Trump renominated Rosenworcel. She was confirmed by the Senate in August.

A lawyer and former Senate staffer, Rosenworcel has pushed for expanding broadband access for low-income consumers and in hard-to-serve areas. She's also advocated for faster deployment of next-generation 5G wireless service. She's been a strong supporter of the FCC's Obama-era net neutrality rules. And now add to this list: She's an outspoken critic of new Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

Rosenworcel rejoined the FCC just as Pai and the Republican majority began working to deregulate the communications industry. Since taking the helm at the agency in January, Pai has spearheaded efforts to dismantle net neutrality rules, to reinstate media ownership rules that would make it easier for large companies like Sinclair Broadcast Group to get larger (a key vote on that happens Thursday), and to make changes to the Lifeline program, which Democrats like Rosenworcel say will limit access to the subsidy program for poor people.

She's well aware that she and fellow Democrat Mignon Clyburn are outnumbered on the five-member commission. But she said she isn't giving up and has taken every opportunity to make noise about issues she cares about. Below is an edited excerpt of CNET's interview with Rosenworcel:

Q: Since Ajit Pai was sworn in as FCC chairman, he's been on a mission to roll back policies Democrats touted as consumer-friendly. How concerned are you that these efforts are harming consumers?
Rosenworcel:I am very concerned. Communication plays an important part in everyone's civic and commercial life today. It plays an even bigger role in our future. It's fair to say that if you don't have access to modern communications, and if you're not connected, then you're not going to have a fair shot at 21st century success.

The most important proceedings before the commission are the ones that extend the digital opportunity and extend connectivity to more people and more places. I have some concerns with proceedings before us right now that I think cut too many communities off, constrain competition and reduce opportunities for the many in favor of just the few.

What's an example of this? What programs and policies are most vulnerable?
Rosenworcel: I am afraid that instead of bringing real reform to the Lifeline program, Chairman Pai is gutting it. And it's the program that is best designed to help kids make sure they get online at home by offering low-cost broadband for low-income households.

I spend a lot of time on this problem that I've named the "homework gap," which is this: Seven in 10 teachers now assign homework that requires online access, but the FCC data shows that one in three households don't have it. And where those numbers overlap is the homework gap.

According to the joint economic committee of the United States Senate, there are 12 million school-age children in this country who don't have broadband or internet access at home and can't do their school work.

If you ask me, that's the cruelest part of the digital divide and it's something we should laser-like focus on fixing. Twelve million is a lot, but I believe it's within our power to fix that. Lifeline is the primary program that could be used to bridge the digital divide and close the homework gap.

One of the items on this month's agenda has to do with reforms to the Lifeline program. Chairman Pai says he's trying to fix a program that's rife with waste, fraud and abuse. What's your take on these reforms?
Rosenworcel: It's not real reform. He has proposed broad-based changes that look less like reform and more like an effort to gut the program.

There are ways we could reform that program and fix it, make it fraud-free and stronger. But instead he's more interested in reducing its size. It's interesting because this program actually got it start in 1985 during the Reagan administration. And over time it evolved to include wireless during the Bush administration. Now Pai seems more interested in reducing its size than improving it and increasing the communities that can use it to expand access.

The proposal we're voting on makes sure those 12 million students who lack internet at home today will lack it in the future as well. It's shameful that we're not going to be figuring out how to use this program to address the problem and close this gap.

Pai has also proposed rolling back some media ownership rules, stating that they're no longer needed. He's said that these rules make it harder for broadcasters to compete for advertising dollars with internet companies like Google and Facebook. You've spoken out against this. Why?
Rosenworcel: I have real concerns about the chairman's decision to just roll back in one fell swoop all of our media ownership policies. The belief that "bigger is better" with cavalier disregard for the consequences could mean we have fewer and fewer forms of news media in our community and less journalism as a result.

It's clear to everyone that media markets are changing. The economic models that have sustained newsgathering for decades have been changed by digitization. If you look at recent news events, you see how disinformation can squeeze out real information and how filter bubbles can suffocate us all because we look for what we want to hear instead of what we need to hear.

These are challenging times for news and real journalism, but I'm not sure the solution to what ails us is rolling back rules that have been in place for decades, because they help with competition, help with media localism and help with journalistic diversity.

You recently told Congress that rule changes at the FCC may be benefiting Sinclair Broadcast Group, which wants to buy Tribune Media for $3.9 billion. The FCC is reviewing the merger. You've asked for an investigation. What's going on there?
Rosenworcel: Let's stand back and look at media policy at this agency. It looks like it's custom-built for one company. The agency has changed its policies with respect to joint services agreements. It's changed its policies with respect to something called the "UHF discount." It's looking at changes to the national media ownership cap, and it's also about to implement a new television standard for which Sinclair owns the most essential patents. That's a lot of activity in service of a single company. It's troubling. It deserves attention. And it needs an investigation.

Do you think Chairman Pai has been working with Sinclair and making these policy changes on the company's behalf?
Rosenworcel: I can't answer that. What I can tell you is that there are a significant number of policy matters before this commission, all of which have the net effect of benefiting Sinclair. I brought that to the attention of the members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. And I hope they will give some thought to that.

Let's talk about net neutrality. The controversial rules were passed in 2015 under Tom Wheeler's watch. Now Pai and his Republican colleagues on the commission want to roll them back. You're a big supporter of the rules. Why are they important?  
Rosenworcel: Our internet economy is the envy of the world. What produced that is a foundation of openness that is cool and revolutionary. It means we can create without permission. If we have a good idea we can share that good idea not just around the corner, but around the world.

I don't understand the effort to rip the rules apart. They are legally bound and wildly popular. It took three trips to court over the past 10 years and was completely upheld by the courts.

This effort is going to give our broadband providers the power to decide which voices should be amplified, what sites we visit, what connections we make and what communities we can create online. That seems to me a radical change and it's one that I am willing to raise my voice to fight.

We need sustainable net neutrality policies. The future of the open internet depends on it, and I am going to fight to make sure we have those at the FCC and beyond.

The Republicans have the votes to get rid of the rules, and it's likely they'll vote on this soon. Do you think Congress should step in create a law to guarantee the openness of the internet?
Rosenworcel: I am focused right now on what's before me and my authority. The FCC is a creature of Congress, so I am careful not to tell the good men and women of Congress exactly what they should or shouldn't do. But the FCC has legally sustainable and wildly popular rules and it is the height of folly to try to take them away.

You've been outspoken about the response from the FCC to recent disasters, which have wiped out communications networks in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. What could the FCC be doing better?
Rosenworcel: Communications networks are essential for recovery from any disaster. And we've had more than our fair share of natural disasters in the last several months with hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

It has been more than 53 days since Hurricane Maria hit the island of Puerto Rico and 40 percent of cell sites remain out of service. In a place where people are still being told to boil water and where most people don't have power, that is a humanitarian disaster. The FCC should be taking a bigger role to make every single effort we can to understand what went wrong, what went right and how we can assist with recovery. Our failure to do so is shameful.

If you look back following comparable disasters in the past like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy under Democratic and Republican administrations, the FCC has had a playbook, which involved public hearings where we tried to figure out what went right and what went wrong with communications both during the disaster and in the recovery. Reports summarizing the hearings and recommending changes to the agency's rules and policies followed. That's a good playbook, and it's one we should use here.

Right now, it's as if we believe all good ideas are going to emanate from this building here in Washington on 12th Street. I think we should be asking far and wide about best practices when recovering from disaster so that we can be better prepared for the next time because it's absolutely clear that Mother Nature's wrath is going to visit us again.

You started at the FCC in 2012 when your party was in the majority. Now you and fellow Democrat Clyburn are outnumbered. How do you handle that and push your agenda forward?
Rosenworcel: I don't think you can be in public service and not choose to be an optimist. So I often call myself an impatient optimist. I feel like if you make enough noise and you make enough ruckus you can get some attention. You can get people to listen and you can change outcomes, even if you might lack the voting muscle from the start. So I am not shy about speaking up and making some noise.

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