Highlights reel: Rosenworcel talks net neutrality, maps, spectrum in FCC confirmation hearing

U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel backed net neutrality, Universal Service Fund reform and a unified government approach to spectrum issues, addressing these and other topics during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee this week.

Rosenworcel was appointed the FCC’s first female chairwoman by President Joe Biden last month. But because her current term as a commissioner expired in mid-2020, she will be forced to leave the agency in January if she is not confirmed by the Senate for another term.

As part of the reappointment process, the Commerce Committee held a hearing on Wednesday to pepper her with questions about a variety of policy issues. Here’s what she had to say about a handful of key telecom topics:

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“We need to get it to 100% of the country and we can’t accept anything less. And with this recent infrastructure bill I think we have a chance for generational change, but it requires us to execute and do that well. So, making sure that the Department of Commerce, the Federal Communications Commission, our colleagues at the Rural Utilities Service are all working off the same data sets to make smart decisions about what to fund and where to deploy I think is the first order of business.”

“For too long the FCC’s been working off maps that are not accurate, that overstate where broadband is in this country, which means that we don’t send dollars to the right places…Right after I took over we got to work on this immediately and in the summer, in early August we produced the nation’s best ever wireless maps…We required every carrier to use the same cell loading characteristics and propagation models so for the first time we have an apples-to-apples comparison.”

“We also decided that we would come up with a statistically valid way for states, localities and tribes to challenge any data before us. On top of that, we are working on a redo of our speed test app, which more than 200,000 people have downloaded and can use to instantly report to us where service is and is not.”

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“We have procured a broadband serviceable location fabric, which is essential, it’s the ground floor for all of this work. However, every bidder who did not succeed can now protest that vote and it will stay our ability to work on that fabric while the GAO [Government Accountability Office] reviews it and that GAO review can take up to 100 days…We are doing everything possible to encourage the GAO to move fast if there’s a protest but if we have problems I might ask for you and this committee’s assistance because we absolutely need to get those maps done because all of the money that’s flowing through the infrastructure bill depends on them being available.”

Net Neutrality:
“I think you know that I support net neutrality. I supported it in 2015 and then I opposed the rollback in 2017. I continue to support it…I think the impact of the rollback in 2017 is broader than just net neutrality because it took the FCC away from oversight of broadband. And coming out of this pandemic, I think all of us know that we need some oversight because it’s become an essential service for day-to-day life.”

On whether Congress should address the issue through legislation: “I think any efforts to update our nation’s telecommunications laws are a good idea because many of them have a vintage quality to it.”

“The laws of physics mean we’re not making more spectrum, so we have to reclaim it from older uses and sometimes that requires going to federal actors and asking them to choose to be more efficient with their current allocations. That, for instance, is how we were able to hold our most recent auction, which is still – we’re finishing up in the 3.45-3.55GHz band. That process, though, is a difficult one and what I hope over time is we can build a whole of government approach where we all understand that repurposing some of those airwaves for new commercial use has innovative benefits for our economy and our civic life.”

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“A few things that I think could help: First, I hope that the NTIA can actually speak as it is authorized to do so for federal government spectrum interests so that we can speak through NTIA confident that they are acting on behalf of other federal authorities with allocations. It would streamline our process. They should have that authority instead of having us have to talk to all these authorities all the time. Second, I think we could revisit the Memorandum of Understanding between the NTIA and the FCC with maybe updated timelines or agreements about methodologies, testing, what harmful interference looks like. And then third, this is maybe a long-term project, but I think we have to start thinking what the incentive structure is for existing spectrum allocations to federal authorities. If we don’t give them incentives to be efficient, they will only see loss rather than gain from reallocation.”

Universal Service Fund:
On ideas for reform: “The best ideas aren’t just here, they’re working with our state counterparts. I know my colleagues have recommended other ideas about expanding it to the tech universe and I also know that we have to think about the role of [Congressional] appropriations with some of these programs, because like I mentioned some of them are now being funded like that which is distinct from this traditional mechanism.”

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“The Affordable Connectivity program, it’s predecessor the Emergency Broadband program, the Emergency Connectivity Fund, all of these are existing outside of the universal service system and through the annual appropriations system. And so, we’re going to have to figure out what the right mix of appropriations and adjustment to the universal service system are necessary to sustain it.”

Next Generation 911:
“We’re going to need to standardize our definitions of next generation 911. We’re going to have to identify new funding sources – traditionally this has been done at the local level and this probably needs a federal boost. And in addition, we’re going to have to continue work to make sure that wireless calls result in public safety being able to find you in a snowstorm or in a building or anywhere you might be using that device to reach our for help.”