After her first public meeting as acting Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman, Jessica Rosenworcel on Feb. 17 answered questions on where she stands on major policy issues, including reviewing a prized liability shield for online platforms and funding for rural broadband deployment.
In a briefing with reporters, Rosenworcel said she continued to oppose acting on the previous administration's petition asking the agency to clarify and review Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects internet platforms such as Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc.'s Google LLC and Twitter Inc. from civil and criminal liability for content created and posted by users online platforms. The law also enables these platforms to moderate content when those actions are taken in good faith.
In May 2020, former President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing the U.S. Department of Commerce to file a petition for rulemaking with the FCC, asking the agency to review the law and to propose regulations to clarify the scope of immunity. It also requested that the agency clarify conditions where restricting access to material is not done in good faith.
In October 2020, former Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he planned to move forward with rulemaking to clarify the meaning of Section 230. However, he later reversed course to say that he did not believe he had sufficient time before his departure to resolve the rulemaking.
"At the time that it was filed last spring, I made clear I did not favor commission action on that petition," said Rosenworcel, a Democrat who was named acting chairwoman in January, when asked about the petition on Feb. 17. "I do not believe that the FCC should be the president's speech police. I continue to not favor action on that petition," she added.
Rural Digital Opportunity Fund
Rosenworcel also provided an update on the FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which targets financial support to help deploy high-speed broadband networks in parts of rural America that do not have fixed broadband service of 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads.
The fund will target areas through a reverse auction in two stages. The first phase originally allocated up to $16 billion to "wholly unserved" areas, where no single address in a given census block has access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service. For the second phase, the FCC originally allocated a minimum of $4.4 billion for unserved households in partially served areas. The FCC will use a new granular mapping program, known as Digital Opportunity Data Collection, to target these locations. The money will be distributed over 10 years.
"I inherited a slate of winning initial bidders from the first phase of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund from my predecessor. They successfully, at least in the initial phase, bid for $9.2 billion worth of funding to help bring broadband to unserved areas," said Rosenworcel on Feb. 17. "We are using our finely toothed combs and regulatory review right now to assess the financial capabilities of those bidders, the technical and engineering capabilities of those bidders, and the operational capabilities of those bidders. That is a process that is careful, because we want to make sure that if they are awarded these funds, they truly can deliver those services to the rural communities that stand to benefit," she said.
Because the first phase did not allocate all of the $16 billion that was originally allocated, the FCC has previously said $6.8 billion left over from the first phase will be rolled over into the second phase of the auction.
Asked about how she sees the commission proceeding on net neutrality, Rosenworcel said while the record reflects that she supports net neutrality, the agency is currently assessing what the best way forward is while remaining "conscious of the composition of the commission."
While the Federal Communications Commission is currently split 2-2 along party lines, President Joe Biden is expected to nominate a third Democratic member to the commission soon.
Industry observers believe a Democratic-led FCC would likely act quickly to take up net neutrality protections. In 2018, under Republican leadership, the FCC reclassified broadband as a Title I information service. The move eliminated the FCC's authority to impose net neutrality rules that prohibited broadband service providers from blocking or throttling legal internet traffic or prioritizing certain traffic for payment.
A Democratic-controlled FCC is widely expected to reclassify broadband as a Title II telecommunications service, restoring more regulatory authority to the agency over broadband service providers such as Comcast Corp., Verizon Communications Inc., AT&T Inc. and Charter Communications Inc.