FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel is in Seattle this week meeting with tech companies and visiting the site of the tragic Oso slide.
Perhaps she also needed to get out of the office, after the agency’s controversial “net neutrality” vote last week. On May 15 it proposed new rules affecting Internet providers and potentially enabling them to create “fast lanes” for some customers.
Rosenworcel, who has advocated for an open Internet, was critical of the proposal and tried to delay it until the agency gathered public comment. But she ended up voting to proceed after some changes were made.
President Obama nominated the longtime communications lawyer to become one of the five FCC commissioners in 2012. She previously was senior communications counsel to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, and before that was legal adviser to former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps.
The iPhone-toting mother of two may also be the only FCC commissioner with an Instagram account, but she’s more active on Twitter, where she has been sharing highlights of her visit to the Seattle area.
Between visits with T-Mobile US, Microsoft and others, she also took the time to chat with me about some of the issues facing the FCC, though she was careful not to say too much about pending topics.
Here are edited excerpts of our conversation.
Q: Why are you visiting the Oso slide site?
Communications is never as important as when the unthinkable occurs. Making sure that the aftermath of any disaster recovery includes recovery of communications is something that’s important. I spent a lot of time at the FCC working on that, and I spent a lot of time after Hurricane Sandy, the derecho storm in Washington [D.C.], talking to first responders about how communications worked or failed.
So we’ve been in conversations with Frontier about how they restored communications in the aftermath of the mudslide and decided while we’re here it would be good to see it up close and in person. To the extent that things worked and worked well, we want to take those lessons and use them elsewhere, and to the the extent there were problems – we want to understand those problems and make sure that we take those lessons too.
Q: You’re also here to visit with Seattle tech companies?
The world’s gone wireless so wireless technology is one of the most exciting aspects of what we do. The wireless economy has a long history in Seattle — there’s a lot of spectrum expertise in these parts — so we’ve spent some time with that community, learning a little bit more about what they’re doing.
It’s a task for the agency to make sure we take the airwaves around us and zone them better and more efficiently so all of our devices have space to operate. You can learn about that in Washington [D.C.] but sometimes it’s good to come out and talk to people who are in the field.
Q: Can you discuss the FCC’s Net neutrality proposal?
I had called on our chairman to delay our rulemaking because I thought it was important to have more public input as we developed our rulemaking, so I concurred in the decision last week.
But here’s the good news: We have now put that rulemaking out to the public and I hope people comb through it – every last detail. And I hope in the time ahead we hear from the giants of the tech community, we hear from the big broadband providers, but most importantly we hear from the American public, because this is a big issue and we’re going to need to have input, far beyond the usual suspects. (Here’s where to comment.)
Q: You’ve come out before against preferential treatment and fast-lanes for particular companies using broadband. Is that correct?
Well I have concerns about fast lanes. I don’t think we want a two-tiered Internet where we have fast speeds for privileged few and the rest of us lagging behind, so that’s an area of concern for me, not just as a regulator but as an Internet user.
Q: Can the FCC do anything to break the stranglehold that companies like Comcast have on TV service and cable bills?
We always have to be looking for ways to develop new competition. We are always going to have to make sure there are new paths for new competitors.
Q: How about the fate of T-Mobile, which Sprint would like to acquire?
One of the major wireless companies in this country. I have had the privilege of being able to spend a little bit of time in their labs while I’ve been out here but I can’t say anything else at the moment — prejudge anything that’s not before us right now.
Q: There was an article recently that said you may be more amenable to the T-Mobile-Sprint merger than FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. Was that correct?
All we ever said was I do not prejudge transactions that are not presently before us.
Q: What do you think will happen over the next five years if you release more unlicensed spectrum, the “white space”?
I think unlicensed spectrum is incredibly exciting. We have a limited amount of airwaves available for wireless service. Some of that needs to be licensed and available to mobile carriers, for mobile broadband purposes and voice purposes.
But we need to make sure that we keep some of that unlicensed and available for all. Because that’s where a lot of innovation happens. That’s the spectrum that has brought us baby monitors, garage door openers, RFID tags and Wi-Fi.
Unlicensed spectrum is an important part of our wireless ecosystem and we need to make an effort to continue to reserve spaces for unlicensed opportunity going forward.
Q: What about the state of broadband overall? There are concerns about cost, concerns about speed and the never-ending comparisons with South Korea. Where do you think we are and what needs to change?
I think we can always do better. One area that I am focusing a lot of energy on is broadband to schools.
We run a program in the FCC called e-rate. E-rate helps support broadband connectivity in schools and libraries across the country. I think we need to make it a national priority to make sure those are really high-speed connections. That will help with digital-age instruction in our schools and it will also help with deployment in all of our communities that surround those schools.
Q: Could that be the foundation of more municipal broadband projects? If you’re wiring up schools and libraries, could cities extend that out and provide fiber to the home and things like that?
Possibly. We have some of them in this country. I think it’s something else that should be an option. If democratically elected individuals want to pursue that, I think they should have the ability to pursue it and I don’t think it’s going to be easy in every case. I think it’s costly and it takes a lot of hard work, but it is certainly something that I hope to be an option for municipalities that might wish to pursue it.
Q: Can you comment on broadband providers imposing data caps, or limits on usage, and the threat that they pose?
It’s something we need to be mindful of. On one hand, I think it’s intuitive that those who use more of a service should pay more. On the other hand, you could see those caps as precluding users from taking advantage of the full bounty of the Internet.
So we want to be mindful and watch them.