The FCC is currently down one commissioner due to Republican Meredith Atwell Baker stepping aside last spring. Democrat Michael Copps is on an “extended term” that is set to end at the end of this Congressional term. So the FCC is due to be getting by on just three commissioners by the time the new year rolls around.
Surprising just about nobody inside the beltway, President Obama nominated two experienced policy wonks with prior commission experience to fill these vacancies, Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel and Republican Ajit Varadaraj Pai. Rosenworcel served for a time as an advisor to Copps, who has been the strongest advocate for the public interest on the FCC in the last decade.
Pai served as Deputy General Counsel to former FCC chairman Kevin Martin, who tried to balance out the boneheaded consolidation-happy tendencies of his predecessor, Michael Powell, but also exhibited his own brand of ham-handedness when it came to issues of ownership regulation and localism. That said, I don’t think we can necessarily use the positions of their former bosses to predict the likely stances of either of these nominees.
Putting aside Clear Channel’s recent begging to further erode ownership rules, I doubt that we’ll see much change in the FCC’s trajectory with regard to broadcast radio if they are both confirmed by the Senate. I’ll be surprised if we see much modification from the Commission’s current proceeding on balancing LPFM expansion with new translator licenses, and even more surprised if either new commission has much influence on the outcome. Provided Rosenworcel is confirmed, there will continue to be a Democratic majority, which will be friendly to LPFM.
The policies that will most affect radio and audio media have to do with the wired, wireless and mobile broadband. Our ability to listen to streaming online radio is utterly constrained by mobile broadband data limits, which in just the last couple of years have gone from unlimited to much more limited. Data caps also matter for home cable and DSL internet, although the smaller bitrates required for streaming audio aren’t as threatened as bandwidth-intensive streaming video.
This is all affected by network neutrality and whether or not broadband providers, wired or mobile, are permitted to determine how much data we use based upon what kind of data it is and who is providing it. Our ability to listen to hours of streaming radio might be encumbered if our broadband provider decides to impose stricter limits on stations or sites that it doesn’t have some kind of contract with.
These are the issues which the new FCC commissioners will have the most impact on. However, as Public Knowledge’s Harold Feld points out, neither Pai nor Rosenworcel have released much in the way of a public record indicating their stances on hot regulatory issues. Feld describes them as, “workhorse wonks – willing to put a lot of time and effort into understanding complex issued before making any kind of decision.”
However, Pai’s and Rosenworcel’s path to the FCC is already threatened, though not due to anything about the candidates themselves. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) says he will object to their confirmation over the fact that the Commission has yet to turn over documents related to the wireless company Lightsquared. The company plans to launch a wholesale mobile broadband service, but is dealing with data that indicates its service interferes with GPS signals. Republic lawmakers are concerned that the Obama administration may be intervening to help Lightsquared overcome these technical roadblocks.
Sen. Grassley requested documents back in April, and he plans to place a hold on the confirmations until the information is turned over. In a July 26 letter to Grassley, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the Commission only responds to such requests coming from committee chairs.
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