FCC’s Starks Aims to Focus on Digital Divide

December 7, 2020 by Kate Michael
Chairman of Federal Communications Commission Ajit Pai testifies during a hearing before Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee at Russell Senate Office Building June 24, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Pai said he'll leave the agency Jan. 20. (Alex Wong/Pool/Abaca Press/TNS)

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission regulates interstate and international communications, including wireless companies, cable and internet providers, and broadcast stations. Of particular note, due to the prevalence of remote work and school in 2020, the agency also guides the nation’s broadband connectivity.

The commission is directed by five commissioners, with no more than three commissioners from one party at any point in time. Each is appointed by the president of the United States, with one selected as chairman, and all are confirmed by the United States Senate for five-year terms. 

Current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced he will not wait for his term to expire in June but will be stepping down in late January, paving the way for President-elect Joe Biden to appoint his own chairman upon taking office as well as fill another vacant seat should Trump’s latest pick, Nathan Simington, not be confirmed by the Senate in time. 

“There are a lot of issues that the FCC handles that will be handled differently,” offered Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, speaking at an Axios-hosted online discussion of broadband access last week. Among those issues are net neutrality, security, and privacy provisions. 

Aside from those remarks, Starks wouldn’t speculate on the agency’s plans post-Pai. 

“I’m focused on how to help see Americans through the pandemic,” he said, as he laid out three core ways he believes the American public is being underserved by current broadband inefficiencies: access, literacy, and affordability.

“We know… more than 77 million people in the U.S. lack an adequate home fixed broadband connection,” Starks said, and while admitting that both urban and rural customers are important in sheer numbers, he’s focused on rectifying the scarcity in cities. “Densely populated urban centers have three times as many unconnected people as do rural areas,” he said. 

“Communities of color have been persistently on the wrong side of the digital divide. There have been long standing magnified and amplified issues of equities — including digital equity — that have turned the digital divide into a monstrous COVID-19 divide.” 

“I’ve called for the FCC to have a connectivity stimulus, but like many long standing issues, this is multivariable calculus.”

In addition to urban access, Starks claimed his focus on those disconnected also included reframing the need for digital literacy, particularly among seniors with telehealth needs and isolation issues, and affordability, speaking to the “18 million households who don’t have broadband simply because it’s too expensive.” 

“I’ve been pushing to make sure providers are offering … high-speed broadband connection for $10, $11, $12. That’s what an affordable option is ultimately going to look like.” And Starks looks to legislation, perhaps including subsidies and vouchers, or expanding the E-Rate program, as a solution. 

“I’m tight on goals, loose on means,” he said. 

While issues of net neutrality, spectrum frontiers, and process reform will inevitably be major concerns on the FCC’s future docket, the digital divide is a priority immediately impacting the economy, as it has dramatically shifted online, as well as personal connections, health, and education. 

“If you are part of the digital divide, you are also part of an economic opportunity divide, and this is going to have lasting effects on our next generation of learners and of leaders,” Starks said. “The good news, from the FCC standpoint, is that we have dedicated $200 billion over the last year or so in a build-out… So help is on the way.”

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