President Joe Biden named acting Federal Communications Commissioner Chair Jessica Rosenworcel to officially head the agency on Tuesday, propping her up as the administration’s leader to tackle broadband expansion and net neutrality. Biden also nominated progressive advocate Gigi Sohn as the third Democrat for the bench.
The decision comes late into Biden’s term, beating out both former presidents Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon who nominated their FCC chairs well into September of their first years. If confirmed by the Senate before December, the FCC’s 2-2 deadlock would end and provide Democrats with a majority to push forward Biden’s telecom agenda. But it’s unclear if senators plan to move on Rosenworcel and Sohn’s confirmations before the end of the year.
Without a majority, current Democratic commissioners Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks have their hands tied when it comes to implementing Biden’s agenda. In July, Biden signed an executive order urging the FCC to restore Obama-era net neutrality rules and to take up other measures to promote broadband competition, including requiring companies to provide transparency into pricing.
Both Rosenworcel and Sohn broadly support the reinstitution of net neutrality. Sohn, who founded the left-leaning tech non-profit Public Knowledge, previously advised former Chair Tom Wheeler during the initial net neutrality fight. At a May Verge event, Sohn suggested that the FCC regulate broadband even further under new net neutrality rules, urging the agency to enforce new pricing principles and make it easier for states and localities to build out their own broadband networks to compete with larger providers.
Rosenworcel and Sohn have butt heads before on certain broadband and cable policy measures. In one instance, Rosenworcel cast a tie-breaking vote to shut down an Obama-era attempt to make the cable set-top box marketplace more competitive. Sohn was one of the primary backers of this policy initiative.
Over the last year, numerous lawmakers and civil society organizations have led letters and campaigns supporting both Rosenworcel and Sohn to head the agency. In July, Fierce Wireless reported that Sohn was initially in the running to lead the agency, but her nomination was later pulled after reportedly being met with intense Senate opposition. In September, over two dozen senators penned a letter to Biden calling on him to appoint Rosenworcel as permanent chair. The letter was signed primarily by Democrats, but notably, more progressive senators, like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Ed Markey (D-MA), were not included.
Sohn’s nomination to be commissioner is still a welcome gesture to progressives who have seen significant wins at ancillary agencies like the Federal Trade Commission over the last year. Biden previously appointed tech antitrust pioneer Lina Khan to lead the FTC and hired Tim Wu, a net neutrality and tech antitrust advocate, as a top economic adviser in the White House.
As Rosenworcel and Sohn’s nominations progress, Republicans will likely use future confirmation hearings to cast doubt on the administration’s plans to reimplement net neutrality. Since the Trump FCC, under Chairman Ajit Pai’s leadership, rolled back the rules in 2017, conservatives have argued that rulemaking never led to any nightmare scenarios previously predicted by Democrats and progressives. These include ISPs like AT&T and Verizon blocking certain lanes of traffic for consumers.
In October 2019, a federal judge upheld the Pai FCC’s decision to roll back net neutrality.