Once Confirmed, FCC Nominees Should Push Startup Priorities
By Sean Davis, Policy Manager, Engine Advocacy & Foundation
The startup ecosystem is waiting for Congress to confirm two key nominees that will help set a pro-innovation agenda at the Federal Communications Commission, including advancing priorities like expanding broadband access and keeping the Internet a level playing field for startups.
This week, the Senate Commerce Committee will meet to vote on Jessica Rosenworcel — current acting FCC Director, who has been nominated to fill the role permanently — and to begin consideration of consumer advocate Gigi Sohn to be FCC Commissioner. Earlier this month, Engine joined dozens of other organizations on a letter calling on Congress to quickly confirm Rosenworcel and Sohn. The vote on Rosenworcel and the hearing on Sohn is spurring conversations about FCC priorities, which should include pro-startup measures.
One of the major issues facing the FCC under Biden is restoring net neutrality protections. Until they were repealed in 2017, net neutrality rules kept the Internet a level playing field by prohibiting Internet service providers from blocking or slowing Internet access or charging Internet companies for better access to users. The protections were especially crucial for startups, which don’t have the resources to compete against large Internet companies that would be able to pay ISPs to prioritize their Internet traffic. More than one thousand startups weighed in at the FCC in 2017, urging the agency not to repeal the 2015 rules. A full FCC, including net neutrality advocates Rosenworcel and Sohn, should prioritize restoring net neutrality protections.
Another item on the FCC to-do list is continuing efforts to expand broadband access across the country.
Ubiquitous Internet access is crucial for a thriving, equitable startup ecosystem, and a lack of broadband in rural and low-income communities has historically denied underrepresented founders opportunities to succeed. Internet access has been even more important in the last two years as the pandemic has pushed more everyday life online, and the FCC’s work to make broadband more accessible, affordable, and reliable has become even more important. Under the recently-passed $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, the FCC will receive billions of dollars to invest in improving broadband access. At the same time, the FCC has been updating their broadband maps, which are used to determine where to direct efforts to boost broadband access. If the FCC is going to push forward on closing the digital divide, it needs to figure out which communities across the country are missing out on opportunities for education and innovation because they lack broadband access.
The FCC also plays a large role in allocating spectrum, including unlicensed spectrum: the electromagnetic waves that fuel Wi-Fi networks and connected devices. While most of the conversation around spectrum focuses on licensed spectrum — which is sold for billions of dollars to wireless companies to operate cellphone networks — the FCC needs to push forward on making more unlicensed spectrum available for general use. Unlicensed spectrum opens up opportunities for innovation both by making Wi-Fi networks work better and by creating capacity for “smart” devices, a space where startups have thrived.
The FCC should be careful not to enact proposals that would turn the current open framework for unlicensed spectrum into a regulatory regime that is costly and difficult for startups to navigate. Recently, the agency proposed creating a new fee category for unlicensed spectrum users which would go towards funding its Universal Service Fund. But as we detailed in our comments, this could end up harming startups that rely on unlicensed spectrum by creating either direct or indirect costs that startups on bootstrap budgets are ill-equipped to afford.
These are some of the issues the FCC should prioritize to advance telecom policies that will help the startup ecosystem, and Congress can push that along by quickly confirming Rosenworcel and Sohn.
Engine is a non-profit technology policy, research, and advocacy organization that bridges the gap between policymakers and startups. Engine works with government and a community of thousands of high-technology, growth-oriented startups across the nation to support the development of technology entrepreneurship through economic research, policy analysis, and advocacy on local and national issues.