Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel is one of the most influential figures in Washington...who you probably have never heard of.
But Rosenworcel, the first woman ever confirmed by the Senate to chair the FCC, spends her days planning what an ideal internet should look like in America. That includes getting every U.S. home a broadband connection, as well as protecting Americans as billions of our appliances, vehicles, and consumer goods start connecting to each other.
“Network security is national security,” Rosenworcel told LX News. “You don't want to wait for an ugly incident to occur before you give thought to that.”
While the FCC isn’t the only agency working on protecting the wireless spectrum in the United States, it’s also tasked with oversight on countless other wireless technologies that Americans interact with on a daily basis, from your cell phone to your garage door opener.
Since the passage of 2021’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, Rosenworcel and the FCC have also been in charge of allocating $65 billion to expand broadband access in America, with the majority of the funds earmarked for rural and tribal areas.
“We need every household to have reliable, affordable Internet access, period,” Rosenworcel said. “We can't treat it like it's a luxury good. It's a necessity.”
LX News spoke to Rosenworcel about these priorities as she approaches the one-year anniversary of her appointment as FCC chairwoman.
Cybersecurity When All Your Devices (and Appliances and Household Goods) Can Talk
“The Internet of Things” refers to objects that communicate with each other wirelessly. Rosenworcel says much of her agency’s bandwidth focuses on helping new technology expand without compromising safety.
“You'll have billions of devices…talking to one another and sharing information,” she said.
Rosenworcel rattles off a list of common items that now — or will soon — utilize wireless technologies to communicate with other devices in the world: traffic lights, personal vehicles, garbage bins, home electronics, health care devices, and even devices that monitor agricultural crops.
“You don't think about technology and agriculture,” she said. “Maybe you think about better tractors, but we're now getting to the point where we are going to be able to put sensors into our fields where we understand precisely how much fertilizer they need.”
But the rapidly-expanding number of devices communicating over wireless networks and utilizing new satellite technologies requires the FCC to both manage wireless spectrums and the security of them.
“Network security and national security go hand-in-hand,” Rosenworcel said. “We are working at the FCC closer than ever before with our national security counterparts, trying to make sure our policies align with theirs.”
The Digital Divide and the “Homework Gap”
Rosenworcel speaks most passionately about getting broadband access to every American household, particularly those with children, whether it means building new infrastructure in remote tribal and rural communities, or providing subsidies to urban families who simply cannot afford broadband internet.
She coined the term “homework gap” to describe the chasm between kids who download their homework assignments from home and those who had to rely on rogue WiFi signals from locations like local fast food chains.
“I gave my first speech on the homework gap back in 2015,” Rosenworcel said. “I would talk to policymakers about kids needing the Internet for school, and many of them would just be like, ‘well, I didn't need that when I was growing up.’ Trying to convey how different it was was really a chore there for a while.
“Until policymakers really saw kids sitting outside of McDonald's in the pandemic, they had a hard time wrapping their arms around this problem…[But kids] were just sitting outside to go to online class. It just feels so cruel, and it totally feels like something we can fix and we can solve.”
The FCC’s push for expanding broadband access took off during the pandemic while the committee was still under Republican control. But the Biden administration turbocharged the effort with its bipartisan infrastructure bill, giving the president’s new FCC chair tens of billions of new tax dollars to work with.
One product of the legislation was the Affordable Connectivity Program, which has helped subsidize home internet bills for more than 13 million mostly low-income families.
“It just seems to me that, in the United States, we should be able to close that gap and fix that divide. And the pandemic, of course, really made it clear to everyone we still have work to do.”
Rosenworcel has also called for an increase in the American standard for broadband speed, from 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload, to 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload. However, Republicans, who control half of the FCC at this time, have resisted calls for more regulation of internet providers.
Net Neutrality and Other Political Hot-Button Issues
Then there’s the issue of net neutrality: the Obama-era rule that basically says internet providers can’t block or slow down your online access. In 2017, the Trump administration rolled back the regulation.
While Rosenworcel is a vocal advocate for net neutrality, she has been unable to reinstate the rule because Republicans have blocked President Biden’s nominee for the FCC’s fifth seat on the commission, Gigi Sohn.
“Net neutrality means your broadband provider can't block websites, throttle services or censor content,” Rosenworcel said. “It means you can go where you want, do what you want online. And they can't cut some sweetheart deals that shut you off from what you want to do.”
But many Republicans in Washington favor fewer regulations on internet service providers, and oppose efforts to regulate the internet like a utility, even if a majority of Republican voters disagree.
And with a Federal Communications Commission split 2-2 between Republicans and Democrats, little gets done without bipartisan buy-in.
“I just want to get things done,” she said. “It's important to realize that you're not going to be in this role forever. You should be a little impatient about getting things done.”
Noah Pransky is LX News’ National Political Editor. He covers Washington and state politics for LX News, with a special focus on Gen Z and Millennial voters. His investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont, and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.