What to know about the FCC in 2017

(This is part 1 in a 2-part look at the FCC)

The Federal Communications Commission regulates radio, television, wire, satellite and cable communications across the U.S. The commission’s regulations can affect broadband access, connectivity and other matters that can directly affect entrepreneurs. That makes knowing what the FCC does and who is in charge important.

Given the start of a new administration, here’s a primer on what you should know about the FCC:

The new makeup of the FCC

In late January, President Trump announced Ajit Pai, a Republican, as the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Pai does not need to be confirmed by the Senate to serve as chair, but his five-year term will be up at the end of 2017. He will need to be reconfirmed by the Senate to serve another term (This seems likely given that both chambers hold Republican majorities.).

Pai has served on the Commission since May 2012, and has an extensive background in D.C. With the absences of Wheeler and Rosenworcel, the current FCC is made up of Pai, Democrat Mignon Clyburn and Republican Michael O’Rielly. So, the FCC needs one more Republican and one more Democrat to return to full capacity.

What happened to the other two commissioners?

Former Chairman Tom Wheeler and Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, both Democrats, stepped down this year. Rosenworcel was forced to leave after the U.S. Senate took no action on reconfirming her for another term. Wheeler stepped down voluntarily, as is common with a new president, especially in a party change.

In a fun twist, the White House resubmitted Rosenworcel to fill one of the vacancies left, well, by her. In the past she received unanimous support in her confirmation and has support from the industry and members on Capitol Hill in both parties. Her departure from the FCC was not based on her own doings, but her nomination became tied up in another political fight. It might be a long shot, but it isn’t impossible for her to be placed back on as a commissioner.

What does the FCC do?

There are seven bureaus in the FCC that all play critical roles in communications, but the bureau that likely impacts Iowa entrepreneurs the most is the Wireline Competition Bureau.

The WCB holds jurisdiction over the Open Internet Order — otherwise known as net neutrality. Net neutrality remains a divisive issue, as philosophies of what policies encourage innovation clash.

Pai voted against the Open Internet Order – approved by a 3-2 vote — when it came before the FCC in 2015.

The FCC also has jurisdiction over the E-Rate Program, which helps schools and districts receive funds for deploying broadband, and the Lifeline program, which was first put in place to ensure low-income families had access to a telephone in their home.

Both programs were expanded under Wheeler. E-Rate was updated to set aside more funding for schools and libraries for improving internal Wi-Fi connectivity. Prior to the update, the availability for funding outpaced the need for broadband 2-to-1.

The Lifeline Program was updated to include a subsidy of $9.25/month for standalone service or bundled voice and data-service packages. The driving force behind the proposal is to bridge the “homework gap”. As educators increasingly choose digital content for delivery, the FCC thought it was a priority to update this program so all students to have access to decrease disparity in internet access.

Because access to broadband and connectivity holds so much potential, the leader of the FCC increasingly has more power. The second part of this series will take a deeper look at Pai and his background, along with where he stands on issues that affect Iowa entrepreneurs.

Susan Gentz is the deputy executive director for the Center for Digital Education and a contributing writer for Clay & Milk.