The long-awaited confirmation hearing for Jessica Rosenworcel as Commissioner and Chairwoman of the FCC was devoid of the drama that often comes along with hearings in the US Senate. Rather, the consensus seemed to be that there's a great deal of work for the FCC to do – and this hearing should have happened sooner.
"My only frustration with Commissioner Rosenworcel's nomination is that it was not done in March," said Senator Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) in opening remarks. "This was long overdue, and we're gonna see with a strong bipartisan vote this should have been done months ago."
"Look, the best time to make better broadband maps would have been five years ago. The second best time is right now," said Rosenworcel at Wednesday's hearing, which was dominated by questions about the state of the FCC's broadband map. "So we are working morning, noon and night to do that."
(Image source: Executive Session Confirmation Hearing via commerce.senate.gov)
With the infrastructure bill and $65 billion broadband legislation officially signed into law by President Biden, the Senate committee focused its questions for Rosenworcel on the FCC's role in doling those dollars out.
Specifically, Senators were concerned with the state of the FCC's broadband map, which will ultimately be used to determine where funds from the bill are distributed. Congress passed the Broadband Data Act in 2020, charging the FCC with overhauling its existing broadband map which vastly undercounts the digital divide in the US. However, progress since then has been slow.
Responding to Senators' questions on the agency's mapping efforts, Rosenworcel confirmed a few steps the FCC has taken with her in the role of acting chairwoman, including setting up a broadband data task force, and urging the public to use the agency's speed test app (which has only been downloaded about 200,000 times according to her testimony).
Most importantly, she said, the FCC has procured a broadband serviceable location fabric, which Rosenworcel called "the ground floor for all of this work." Noting that the winning bidder was selected last week, Rosenworcel said that all other bidders now have the opportunity to protest, which the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) can then review for up to 100 days, thus stalling the FCC's process.
"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 is flowing through the infrastructure bill depends on them being available," she said in response to questions from Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), who co-sponsored the Broadband Data Act.
(Broadband World News reached out to the FCC for more information on the winning bidder for the serviceable location fabric but did not hear back at the time this was published.)
Rosenworcel also mentioned other delays to the agency's mapping work, including discovering upon her arrival as acting chair that the FCC "didn't actually have the computer processing power to build big maps" – an issue she says was "immediately" rectified.
Other concerns senators raised for the acting chairwoman centered on the Universal Service Fund, expanding access to telemedicine and wireless spectrum.
But with $65 billion ready to go out the door for broadband, the urgency amongst lawmakers to install a leader at the agency tasked with determining where all that money goes was clear.
"We don't have very many floor days left and if we don't confirm her before the end of the year then, by law, she has to pack up her office and leave the FCC," said Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI). "This is not the time to leave the agency leaderless."
— Nicole Ferraro, site editor, Broadband World News; senior editor, global broadband coverage, Light Reading. Host of "The Divide" on the Light Reading Podcast