New FCC boss leaps into action by… creating three committees to look at longstanding problems and come back at some point

Nothing says urgency like non-binding future reports


The new acting head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Jessica Rosenworcel has emerged from her first meeting in charge of America's telecoms regulator stressing urgency and the need to act at a “critical time.”

Her solution? To set up a series of new task forces, committees, and review teams to look at longstanding issues and get back to her in an unspecified time-frame with recommendations that the FCC might take forward. Not exactly dynamism in action.

Having been an FCC Commissioner for over a decade, save a seven-month break in 2017 due to partisan politics, there are few people more familiar with the issues that the agency faces than Rosenworcel.

Jessica Rosenworcel

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But despite noting that she was “excited and honoured to lead the agency at a critical time,” and that she wanted to get moving on the issue of broadband provision “as quickly as possible,” Rosenworcel has seemingly decided that an embrace of bureaucracy is the right path forward.

Congress has set aside $3.2bn for an Emergency Broadband Benefit Program aimed at getting more Americans wired internet access during this global pandemic and has put the FCC in charge of it. The agency appears not to have noticed the word “emergency” at the front of the name.

Following a round-table session last week in which everyone gave speeches about how important it was to act quickly, this week the FCC sat through a staff update that announced it had decided which part of its bureaucracy had been chosen to come up with the rules.

“I believe in the urgency of now,” Rosenworcel said last week promising to make “hard choices” to get the program moving. This week the only update appears to be that she has decided that the rules, whenever they actually turn up, should be “easy to follow.” At this rate, Congress will have proven faster and more flexible than its semi-autonomous regulator and the pandemic will be over before the funds are dispersed.

Dodgy data

A similar response covered the longstanding issue of highly inaccurate broadband data. For years, consumer groups, smaller ISPs, broadband advocates, and even Congress have complained about the FCC’s broken system for gathering accurate information about the availability and speed of internet access across America.

The system has long been gamed by the cable industry to maximize profits. Countless reports have been produced outlining the problems and offering solutions. First and foremost is changing the infamous Form 477 that ISPs provide the FCC and which it uses as its main source of information about internet provision across the US.

The issue has been going on so long that two years ago, a bipartisan group of US senators formally told the FCC to face up to the reality that its statistics were largely worthless and urged for it to set up a crowdsourcing model to gather accurate data. That followed a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in September 2018 that noted that the FCC data does "not accurately or completely capture broadband access."

But despite two different arms of the US government producing reports and recommendations on how to fix the problem, the new FCC chair has decided that the best approach is to set up a new task force to look at the issue and report back – again, at some unspecified future point.

You have to be Kiddooing

Today on a press call, Rosenworcel said she had decided to base that new task force on the Incentive Auction Task Force, to the extent that she has even chosen the head of the auction task force, Jean Kiddoo, to head up this group.

The Incentive Auction Task Force was created in 2012, its first draft set of rules came out in 2014 and it ran through ten phases between 2017 and 2020 before finally resulting in some action.

The task force doesn’t have a webpage or readily available meeting minutes, and its work is almost impossible to track. And this is the model that Rosenworcel has chosen to emulate when it comes to fixing one the fundamental problem that the agency in charge of overseeing America’s internet access doesn’t actually know what access is available where.

Based on the auction task force’s pace, we can expect to see accurate broadband data some time in 2029.

A third piece of urgent action taken by the FCC’s new head is dealing with the fact that hundreds of millions of dollars provided to states by the federal government specifically to build up emergency services is being spent on unrelated and unspecified pet projects.

This misuse of money was a particular bugbear of former FCC commissioner Mike O’Rielly who pushed the FCC, which is supposed to oversee the disbursement, to produce a report on how bad the problem was.

In a report that was finished in December 2017 based on figures from 2016 – a full year earlier – and then released two months later in February 2018, it was revealed that states were siphoning off “at least $129m” intended for public emergency preparedness to pay for other things.

It's got the word 'force' in it

Rosenworcel’s approach to tackling what has become known as “911 fee diversion” is what? Set up a strike force to look at the issue.

This morning, the FCC put out a request for people to nominate themselves to sit on the new group: an approach which pretty much guarantees it will become little more than another status sign-up within the telco policy world with insiders jostling for position.

As for the timeline for action? To produce a report by September that the FCC will then send to Congress to consider.

In the meantime, Rosenworcel has “proposed new rules” – prompted by an act of Congress, rather than any FCC action – that will ask states to give it more information on how they spend the ten of millions provided each year. If those states keep spending the money on unrelated tasks, the FCC has threatened to “prohibit any state or jurisdiction identified by the Commission as a fee diverter from serving on any advisory committee established by the Commission.”

In other words, less a stick and carrot than a day-old hoagie being used for both jobs.

And as for the countless other problems that the FCC has – and which were demonstrated repeatedly by former chair Ajit Pai who consistently abused, and often simply ignored, the FCC policy-making principles to push through – Rosenworcel said today that she had ordered a “top-to-bottom review” of how the FCC does everything.

Asked for more details, she told reporters: “We will be assessing if we need to revamp or develop a new way of operating.” Any specific details? Yes, one: broadband data maps. Any timeline? No.

We asked the FCC about the lack of timelines for all these new committees and were told: “All three initiative are major priorities that Commission staff are already mobilizing to address and we look forward to sharing more information at a future date.”

The big issues?

Even when it came to two high-profile issues that Rosenworcel has been very vocal in opposition to: the White House-pushed proposal to create rules for Section 230 and the return of the net neutrality questions, she refused to outline any steps forward except to note that she was opposed to them in the past and her position hasn’t changed.

Asked if and when she expected her “acting chair” role to be turned into a full chair role, she said that was something entirely up to the White House.

So it seems that President Joe Biden has a clear choice: does he want someone that can fix the longstanding and growing problems of modern communications provision for Americans, especially the internet; or does he want an old-hand who believes in task forces, strike forces, and an overall lack of force? ®


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