FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel is advocating for a more inclusive digital world

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Federal Communication Commission Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel addresses protesters outside the Federal Communication Commission building to rally against the end of net neutrality rules on Dec. 14, 2017, in Washington, DC.

The terms superstar, unapologetic champion and badass woman might not immediately conjure up the image of a federal regulator, but Jessica Rosenworcel has been described in precisely those ways as she continues to break new ground in her role as a member of the Federal Communications Commission.

Rosenworcel, 48, a native of West Hartford, is currently the only woman and one of two Democrats on the five-member FCC, the independent government agency that regulates interstate communications by radio, television, internet, wire, satellite and cable. She might be in the minority on the regulatory panel in those respects, but Rosenworcel is anything but silent, speaking passionately and publicly on key FCC policy debates, net neutrality and the digital divide in this country. 

But she’s also speaking out on topics that would seem to fall outside the bounds of the FCC, including the need for greater access and opportunities for women in STEM fields and other industries, and other issues that impact women, girls and the economically disadvantaged. Rosenworcel is also active on the speaking circuit (she popped up at a Teen Vogue summit) and on Twitter, tweeting about everything from artificial intelligence and 5G technology to the World Series and Halloween candy. Traditionally, the role of FCC commissioner has been a largely faceless and voiceless one. Rosenworcel is anything but.

“Given all that she is doing on the FCC and beyond, Jessica is rightly considered a superstar,” says Michael Copps, who served on the commission for a decade through 2011, including a stint as acting chairman.

Copps is not alone in that assessment. Politico designated Rosenworcel as one of its “50 Politicos to Watch,” and InStyle magazine included Rosenworcel in its Badass Women series, celebrating “women who show up, speak up and get things done.”

Oddly, perhaps, the hotly debated battle over preserving or repealing net neutrality — a fight she was on the losing side of in late 2017 when Obama-era regulations aimed at protecting open and equal internet access were thrown out — propelled the FCC and Rosenworcel into the public eye more than ever.

“When I first was appointed to the FCC, I thought not that many people knew very much about this agency,” Rosenworcel says. “I mean, it’s an extraordinary privilege to be here. Communications and technology account for as much as one-sixth of our nation’s economy. Our decisions at this agency have far-reaching consequences. But as agencies go, the FCC lived under the radar. However, during the net neutrality proceeding, millions of people found the FCC. They lit up our phone lines, jammed our email inboxes, and even broke our online comment system. They told us in no uncertain terms that they supported net neutrality and didn’t take kindly to the agency reversing our stance on internet openness. Wherever you stand on the issue, that kind of public input is democracy in action, and I hope it’s something we can all support.”

The battle over net neutrality rages on, with the latest major turn coming in early October when a federal appeals court ruled that the FCC’s repeal could not preempt net neutrality rules in place or being established by individual states. While some observers expect the legal wrangling, especially involving state-federal conflicts, to eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court, Rosenworcel pledged after the D.C. Circuit Court decision to remain steadfast in her efforts to protect a free and open internet. “As the FCC revisits its policies in light of the court’s directives, I hope it has the courage to run an open and fair process,” Rosenworcel says. “The momentum around the country is proof the American people are not done fighting for an open internet. I’m proud to stand with them in that fight.”

One of her favorite aspects of serving on the FCC is the fact that she has “a front-row seat at the digital revolution,” Rosenworcel says. “Every day I see how communications technology is remaking every aspect of civic and commercial life. That may seem overwhelming at times, but I am convinced that the future belongs to the connected. No matter who you are or where you live in this country, you need access to modern communications to have a fair shot at 21st-century success. That’s something I’m proud to work on — expanding access to digital-age opportunity.”

Rosenworcel is also a leading voice in the multi-pronged effort to bridge the digital divide throughout the U.S., as well as eliminating the “homework gap” — a phrase she coined to describe the problematic fact that about 12 million students in this country cannot complete their school assignments because they have no broadband internet access at home.

Statistics show that the homework gap, which Rosenworcel calls “the cruelest part of the digital divide,” affects nearly one in five students nationwide, including in the commissioner’s home state of Connecticut. “Seven in 10 teachers now assign homework that requires internet access, but according to FCC data, about one in three households do not have broadband,” Rosenworcel says.

Adding to the problem, Rosenworcel points out, is that several nationwide studies “found that teachers, especially in low-income communities, are loath to integrate technology into their teaching when students do not have broadband at home. That means that too many young people may go through school without developing the skills they need for the digital age.”

While Rosenworcel says she’s working with her colleagues at the FCC, other agencies, and at various levels of government to address the issues that contribute to the digital divide and the homework gap, in particular, the mother of two says she continues to speak with students, parents and educators throughout the country to include them in possible solutions to the problems.

“I’ve spoken with students who sit at night in the pitch black of the school parking lot with a borrowed laptop because it is the only place they can get the signal they need to do their nightly schoolwork,” Rosenworcel says. “I’ve worked with kids who slide into booths at fast-food restaurants to use the free Wi-Fi to do their homework with soda and a side of fries. I’ve talked with parents who patch together elaborate routines to get their kids to the library before it closes just to get a bit of time online for homework. I think we can do better than this. I think it’s within our power to address this problem.”

She takes pride in the fact that Hartford has been at the forefront of assessing the homework gap as well as developing solutions to address it, an effort that began in Connecticut’s state capital in 2017. “They were ahead of so many others in their efforts to address this issue, and I always point with pride to this assessment in Hartford because I think this is the right place to start,” Rosenworcel says. “Every community can ask, who is online? Who is not? How many households without students lack reliable internet access? I’m a believer that you can’t manage what you do not measure. So starting with an assessment is key. Going forward, I’d like to see a similar statewide review. I know work like this has been done in North Carolina and Virginia, so I’d like to see it happen at home. With my ties to the state, I would be glad to help make it happen in any way I can.”

Congresswoman Jahana Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year who now represents the 5th District in Connecticut, has high praise for Rosenworcel’s leadership and work on the FCC, particularly on closing the digital divide in Connecticut and beyond.

“Commissioner Rosenworcel is a bold and unapologetic champion for making sure that all Americans, regardless of where they live, have access to the internet,” says Hayes, a Democrat elected to Congress last year. “The commissioner has led the fight to expand rural broadband and fought to protect net neutrality.”

Hayes, a longtime teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury who grew up in public housing in that city, says the homework gap is a serious problem in Connecticut and in other urban, suburban and rural areas of the country that needs to be fully and quickly rectified.

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FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in her father's office at her childhood home in West Hartford.

“As a teacher, I saw the impact of the homework gap firsthand,” Hayes says. “As someone who now represents some rural parts of Connecticut that do not have quality broadband access, I continue to see how important it is to make sure every American has quick and affordable access to the internet. Our students’ futures should not be based on the level of broadband access where they live, which is why I am currently working on legislation, along with Commissioner Rosenworcel, to address this issue head on.”

Rosenworcel was first appointed to the FCC by President Barack Obama in 2012, and, even though she’s a Democrat, was appointed to a second term by President Donald Trump in 2017. “I think that speaks to Jessica’s qualifications, her commitment, her intellect and her incredible breadth of experiences not only in communications law and policy, but also on Capitol Hill,” says Copps, who hired Rosenworcel as his chief of staff and senior legal advisor during his time on the FCC. “Jessica brings with her an enormously wide perspective to this position. I deem her the most prepared commissioner that ever took office on the FCC.”

Rosenworcel worked as a staffer with the FCC from 1999 to 2007 before moving on to become a top Congressional aide, helping to write communication laws. She served as senior communications counsel for the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, under the leadership of Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va., and Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii.

After graduating from Wesleyan in Middletown and the NYU School of Law, Rosenworcel practiced communications law in Washington, D.C., where she now lives with her husband, Mark Bailen, a media attorney, and their son and daughter.

But Rosenworcel credits her parents’ influence and her upbringing on Hickory Lane in West Hartford, where her parents still live, and what she describes as “an incredible education” in the state’s public schools as eventually leading her to the career path she’s chosen.

“I like to think that a commitment to public service runs in my family,” Rosenworcel says. “My father served in the Air Force, going on to a career as a nephrologist in Hartford. For three decades, he also ran the city clinic for hypertension and kidney failure. My mother has spent more than two decades helping run a soup kitchen in Hartford. And my grandfather before them served in the United States Customs Service in Washington. My great-grandfather before that served the public in a different way — he swept the streets of New York.”

Rosenworcel’s brother, Brian, is also very successful, although in quite a different profession: He’s the drummer/percussionist for Guster, the popular alternative rock band that’s also known for its environmental outreach, awareness and educational efforts within the music industry and beyond.

“Growing up, my brother and I read lots and took our schoolwork seriously,” she recalls. “We also inherited a tenacious streak from our parents. Our lives may be different now, but I think we both were inspired by our upbringing to work hard and do what we can to make a dent in the universe and leave it a more just and interesting place.”

Brian Rosenworcel, speaking by phone from a hotel room during Guster’s ongoing cross-country tour, agrees that their parents instilled a sense of service and a responsibility to make a difference in the world in each of them early on. “With parents who were liberals and believed in being of service, of trying to have a positive impact, even as kids I think both Jessica and I saw by their priorities, example and general philosophy about life that part of what we’re here to do is to make things better around us in whatever way we could,” Brian says. “That wasn’t some abstract idea, but the way our parents went about what they did on a day-to-day basis. And so having the power to improve things in the world, the benefits of independent thinking, intelligent discussion, involvement with social issues, getting a good education — all those things were always part of our home and our family. I went into music full on when that opportunity presented itself, and Jessica went into law, but I think it was clear even back then around her college and law school days that eventually she’d get into some kind of public service.”

Brian adds that he takes pleasure seeing how his sister is using her position and platform to advance the national discussion about important and often complicated issues in media, tech and communications. “I find it a source of pride that I’m the one in a band but Jessica is the more famous of the Rosenworcel siblings as an attorney and FCC commissioner,” he says. “She’s been described as a rockstar and a superstar, but I see her as a folk hero, making a tremendous difference in society in significant and lasting ways, and being the voice for people in areas and in ways where they might not otherwise be heard.”

Another issue that Rosenworcel is passionate about is shining a light on women involved in the ever-advancing world of technology, be it through her advocacy for getting more girls and young women involved in STEM education or through her popular podcast, Broadband Conversations, about women making a difference.

“I’m a believer in the saying ‘If you can see it, you can be it,’ but the problem is that I’ve seen too many company boardrooms, engineering labs and computer science classes that have almost no women or girls,” Rosenworcel says. “So, as the only woman at the FCC, I have made it a priority to bring attention to some amazing women across the technology, innovation and media landscape, including through my podcast. I’ve used the podcast to record conversations with a diverse set of women — from Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., to [civil rights activist and professor] Maya Wiley and [Black Girls Code founder] Kimberly Bryant to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy. It’s been fantastic.”

Rosenworcel’s current term on the FCC expires in 2020, and although others have wondered if she’ll seek elected office, Rosenworcel insists she’s focused on the work she’s doing right now.

“These are challenging days in Washington, but I come to work every day jazzed to do good,” she says. “It’s a privilege to be in this role. I want to ensure that the work I do with the issues I champion — from keeping the internet open with net neutrality to making it possible to fix the homework gap for students without broadband to making better sense of how we use the spectrum in our skies for the next generation of wireless service known as 5G — lead to real and positive change.”

To hear Rosenworcel speak about her home state, however, one could question whether she might someday return to her roots with her family. “I miss the lush green of a Connecticut summer and the excitement that comes with an early snowfall,” Rosenworcel says. “I also miss the sense of history that connects so many communities in the state. I’m so grateful I spent my childhood and college years in Connecticut. It will always feel like home.”

This article appeared in the December 2019 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get the latest and greatest content from Connecticut Magazine delivered right to your inbox. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com, or contact us on Facebook @connecticutmagazine or Twitter @connecticutmag.