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Biden picks Jessica Rosenworcel as acting FCC chief

NBC News logo NBC News 1/21/2021 April Glaser
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President Joe Biden has picked Jessica Rosenworcel to run the Federal Communications Commission in an interim position. That makes Rosenworcel, the 49-year old lawyer, current FCC commissioner and podcast host from West Hartford, Connecticut, the second woman to be appointed for as interim chair in the FCC’s 96-year history –– a job that involves such daunting tasks as helping millions of American get reliable access to the internet.

Rosenworcel is not only the second woman to lead the FCC as a full-term chair (former Commissioner Mignon Clyburn served as the first interim chairwoman of the FCC for nearly 6 months in 2013), she is also the first mother assigned to do the job. She has two school-aged children, and when she’s not crafting the nation’s tech and media laws, she’s trying to ensure that her kids are doing their school work remotely during the pandemic.

“I find myself — like a lot of people — playing a lot of different roles. One moment, I'm running an office call, another, I'm speaking via video at an online conference, and in yet another, I'm Wi-Fi fixer and snackmaker. My days are full!,” she told the tech news site Protocol in December.

While Rosenworcel declined to be interviewed for this article, colleagues say and her public comments reflect how much that role has influenced her policy priorities. During her tenure at the agency, she coined the term “the homework gap” in 2014 to describe the overlap between families that lack broadband access at home and students who need the internet to do their homework. She has championed better access to broadband in rural areas with high maternal mortality rates and poor internet access, to help women who live far from an obstetric center to receive care. And Rosenworcel used her platform as a commissioner at the FCC to elevate women in technology, launching the first podcast from any regulatory agency in the U.S., Broadband Conversations, where she only interviews women. Recently, that’s included a panel of school superintendents from across the country discussing the challenges of moving school online during the pandemic.

“Our lives are increasingly spent online, on phones, on video chats, and how all of that works for people in our country is something that she understands," said U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, a Democrat representing Silicon Valley in California. "You don’t have to have an extended policy conversation to try to bring her over the line on that –– she’s already there.”

FCC Veteran

Rosenworcel first came to the FCC over 20 years ago in 1999, before leaving the agency to be a congressional aide in 2007, as senior communications counsel for the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. In 2012, she returned to the FCC, where she was appointed to be a commissioner under President Barack Obama. She was renominated in 2017 by President Donald Trump while the FCC was led by Chairman Ajit Pai during his historic undoing of the country’s network neutrality protections.

Now, as the president’s choice to lead the agency, she’s likely to pick up the network neutrality baton again - which prohibited internet service providers from charging websites to reach users at faster speeds. When Chairman Tom Wheeler ran the agency under Obama, Rosenworcel boldly pushed the chairman to create more aggressive network neutrality rules, a stance he eventually adopted and led to the network neutrality protections that were passed in 2015. And when Pai came to lead the agency with the intention to take a “weed wacker” to net neutrality in 2017, she didn't sit quietly either.

“Let's roar. Let's make a ruckus. Let's stop this plan in its tracks,” she tweeted in 2017, when Pai released his plan to rescind the net neutrality rules. Over 22 million comments were submitted to the agency in response to the removal of the internet traffic rules.

Homework Gap

When it comes to remote schooling, Rosenworcel knows she’s one of the fortunate parents with access to the internet at home. Roughly one-third of American households lack reliable access to broadband, according to FCC data, which for millions of American families has meant their kids have difficulty continuing their education while schools stay closed. But long before the pandemic, Rosenworcel hit the road, speaking to students, parents and teachers across the country to learn more about the difficulties students face getting online, for years urging the commission to reform its policies to better serve families struggling to get access to the internet.

As the school year was winding down for the summer of 2016, Rosenworcel accompanied former Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, on a trip to the small rural community of Hatch, New Mexico, to visit a high school to talk to students and teachers about how they get online.

In Hatch, she met Jonah Madrid, a student on the football team who told her that after the final school bell rings, he and his teammates would pile on a bus, sometimes traveling as far as an hour and a half to a neighboring town to play a game, after which he sat in the school’s parking lot at night with his laptop open to do his homework in the dark because his family didn’t have internet at home. It’s a story she often recalls in speeches as a commissioner. Research from the Senate Joint Economic Committee in 2017 on the homework gap showed that Madrid was far from alone. About 12 million school age children live in homes without a broadband connection, the research found.

So in March, when thousands of schools quickly shuttered to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Rosenworcel sprung into action and began supporting proposals to help students who lacked internet access at home get online and continue their education.

“[T]he FCC should use its power in this emergency to provide schools with Wi-Fi hot spots to loan out to students who lack reliable internet access at home,” she wrote in an op-ed on the technology news site, The Verge. The FCC has the authority to help students get online in times of need, like the pandemic, through updating the E-rate program, she said, which is the largest largest education technology program in the country.

Maternal mortality

Historically, tech policy initiatives don’t tend to incorporate the health care needs of pregnant women into their planning. But Rosenworcel has travelled to meet doctors who serve rural areas to discuss how improved access to telehealth services could help pregnant women in parts of the country that lack nearby hospitals.

In 2019, Rosenworcel travelled to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she met with health e providers that often treat women who live hours away because there’s no closer option for obstetric care, a task that becomes especially hard when pregnant women need to be under special observation or have any complications with their pregnancy that require multiple visits to the doctor per week for monitoring before and after giving birth.

Rosenworcel recalled one such story she heard in testimony provided to the House Energy and Commerce Committee in 2019, when nurses and doctors in Little Rock had a patient with serious complications after her pregnancy that could lead to maternal mortality. She required daily monitoring at a special obstetrics center, but the patient lived hours away.

“So this team at the medical center got creative,” Rosenworcel said in her testimony. “They sent her home with a blood pressure cuff, a scale to monitor her weight, and a pulse oximeter to measure the levels of oxygen in her blood. She was told to connect all of these devices to a wireless gateway and to transmit daily readings to the medical center.” But the patient didn’t have internet or cell service at home––she lived in a deadzone. So when she got back after giving birth, she had to drive her truck to the top of a hill every day to send her vitals back to the hospital, Rosenworcel said.

Stories of people she’s met on the road appear to drive Rosenworcel. She’s proposed ideas that would help hospitals in rural areas get connected to the broadband to receive care from specialists and experts even at a great distance. Since she’s taken up the issue, lawmakers have introduced bipartisan bills in the House and the Senate, which Rosenworcel endorsed, aimed at improving access to telehealth in rural communities and areas with high levels of maternal mortality.

Self-starter

While Rosenworcel speaks little about her private life, glimpses trickle out here and there. She mentioned on her podcast that she once considered becoming a ski instructor before she ended up tackling tech policy. Her brother, Brian, is a drummer for the rock band Guster. And recently during the pandemic, her family adopted a rescue dog, Bo, she revealed in her interview with Protocol.

But lawmakers like Sen. Ben Luján, a Democrat from New Mexico, have been struck by the compassion she has shown when meeting with the public at schools and libraries for the stories people shared with her. “People felt comfortable talking to Commissioner Rosenworcel because she listened to them. And she took everything she learned from listening to them and translated it into troubleshooting and problem-solving and she got to work,” he said. “That’s the reputation Commissioner Rosenworcel has. She rolls up her sleeves, she gets to work and she gets things done.”

But she also appears to be ready to introduce change. On the first anniversary of her podcast in 2019, one of her staffers who interviewed her asked what advice she has for young people considering entering into public service.

She answered: “I think my primary advice is to ask for permission less. There are so many things I've managed to be able to do because I looked to my left and right and thought I need to get something done here. We need to move. We need to move fast. If I asked the permission of everyone around me, it's not going to happen.”

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