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Who Joe Biden might pick for the next FCC chair, and why

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Who Joe Biden might pick for the next FCC chair, and why

Joe Biden's incoming administration has been rolling out nominations to lead agencies at a steady clip, but who he will choose to lead the Federal Communications Commission remains an open question.

For the past four years, the agency has been led by Republican Chairman Ajit Pai, giving the Republicans a 3-2 majority. However, Pai steps down on Jan. 20, giving Biden the opportunity to nominate a Democratic chair. Industry observers believe Biden's pick could range from current commissioners, to former staffers and vocal public interest advocates.

Doug Brake, director of broadband and spectrum policy at the nonpartisan public policy think tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said that while he is not familiar with the thinking of the transition team or those in Biden's inner circle, he thinks Biden is most likely to select one of two people: either Edward "Smitty" Smith, a telecom attorney who has worked as a legal adviser to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration; or Jessica Rosenworcel, the most senior Democratic commissioner at the FCC.

"They are both eminently qualified and would make great chairs, but if I had to bet, I'd lean toward Smitty," said Brake in a Jan. 15 email. "He is close to the administration ... and with Democrats taking the Senate, it becomes much easier to get a new, outside commissioner seated."

Smith is currently on a leave of absence from the law firm DLA Piper, as he is working on Biden's agency review transition team for the FCC. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris' husband, Douglas Emhoff, previously worked at the same law firm.

Chris Lewis, president and CEO of public interest group Public Knowledge, said in an interview that the names the group is hearing of people who are interested in the role include Rosenworcel and Gigi Sohn, a former staffer for former Democratic FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

Lewis added that Anna Gomez, a telecom attorney who was once acting administrator of the NTIA and served for 12 years at the FCC, has had her name "put out a lot."

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He added that while there was some early chatter about Mignon Clyburn, former FCC commissioner and acting chair, as a possible candidate to lead the agency, he has not heard whether she is interested in the job or not.

"Whereas, by all accounts, Gigi Sohn, Jessica Rosenworcel — definitely interested in the job," said Lewis.

Brake similarly said he was unsure if Clyburn is interested in the role, noting that she has recently joined a few corporate boards, which could be an indication that she may not be interested in being the next chair.

Like Smith, Clyburn is serving on the Biden transition team's agency review for the FCC, while Gomez is serving on the agency review team for the Department of Commerce.

Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at the California-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in an interview that while he views the vacancy as "a black box in terms of who the incoming administration is considering," his organization has a preference for who Biden taps to lead the agency: Gigi Sohn.

"She's someone that comes from the public interest community ... They deserve someone who would carry their work and their message as a leader," said Falcon.

In addition to her work at the FCC, Sohn has had a long career as a public advocate, which has included being a co-founder and CEO of Public Knowledge.

Falcon also cautioned that there is no guarantee that the Biden administration will bring about a significant change at the FCC, and said that whoever Biden chooses will send a signal about the direction they will go in.

"I think it's to be written still, whether the Biden FCC will be a bold and aggressive FCC," he said. "If you pick someone with no record of long-term efforts and working on behalf of consumers, it sends a message that we really don't know what direction they want to take the FCC."

Confirmation hearings for certain cabinet-level nominations began on Jan. 19. However, some in the communications industry believe there may be a little bit of a delay for appointments at independent agencies, such as the FCC.

Whoever the new chair is, one issue a Biden FCC is expected to take up quickly is restoring 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 Biden FCC is widely expected to reclassify broadband as a Title II telecommunications service, restoring more regulatory authority to the agency over broadband service providers like Comcast Corp., Verizon Communications Inc., AT&T Inc. and Charter Communications Inc.