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Broadband: With Jessica Rosenworcel
18 minutes

To celebrate the one-year anniversary of Broadband Conversations, we flipped the script and had Commissioner Rosenworcel answer some of our big questions. Listeners will get to hear the Commissioner talk about some of her favorite conversations and also hear her share her story, her advice, and what she hopes for the future of digital life.


MS. BLACK: Welcome to Broadband Conversations, the podcast where FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel gets to talk to women leading the way in technology, innovation, and media.

You get to hear Commissioner Rosenworcel ask what they're working on, what's on their minds, and what they think is the next big thing. But if you're wondering, “That doesn't sound like the smooth radio voice of the Commissioner,” you're right. I'm your host today. I'm Kate Black, a member of the Commissioner's team here at the FCC.

Usually I'm in the control room during these recordings, but today we get to flip the script and I get to ask the questions. This is a pretty special day. Today is the one-year anniversary of this podcast. That's right, 365 days of Broadband Conversations. That's a lot of conversations. We are getting Commissioner Rosenworcel's take on the last year of the podcast and whatever else we can think up. Are you ready?


MS. BLACK: All right. Whew, one year of this podcast. Did you ever think we'd make it?

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, yes and a little bit of no, too. I mean, we dreamed this up in the office in a brainstorming session and we thought about all the interesting women in technology that I have the opportunity to meet and could we find a way to take their voices and share them with the broader population and just the folks in our office.

Then we came and talked to the terrific audio and visual folks here at the agency and they were in. They were willing to figure out how to do this. I mean, this hadn't been done at the FCC before and, as best we can tell, at any other agency like the FCC but we thought why not do something new and, hence, the podcast was born.

MS. BLACK: We've had a lot of guests. We've had senators, congresswoman, policy makers, inventors, technologists, teachers, even an astronaut. Do you have any favorites?

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, I feel like mother needs to love all of her children equally. But I do have some moments from our conversations that really stand out, and one of them that was really out of this world was talking to NASA astronaut Kate Rubins about her experience on the international space station.

MS. BLACK: That was really cool.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: That was incredible. It brought to life what it means to be a scientist in space. She made me so much more interested in that subject here this year now with the 50th anniversary of our arrival on the moon so that was really exciting.

I also had a terrific conversation I remember with Kimberly Bryant who started Black Girls Code. What struck me most was she was saying she wanted to do this and she was inspired to do this because she wanted her daughter to learn some of the skills that she thought were so necessary in the future. Then she extended that opportunity to so many other girls along the way.

I had a great time talking to some members of Congress. We started with Senator Cortez Masto.

MS. BLACK: That was our very first episode.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I know. She was describing what it was like to grow up in Nevada and have this consumer electronics show in her backyard. It informed the way she thinks of technology. That's different than how other people do so that was neat.

And we've also had great conversations with other members of Congress. I talked a little bit to Congresswoman Yvette Clarke about broadband deserts. We think a lot about the areas in this country where service is and is not. We often talk about rural America, but she was talking about urban America. I thought that was really insightful, too.

MS. BLACK: For sure, for sure. I think that raises what I love so much about this podcast which is the focus on women. We only have female guests and I think that can look a couple different ways.

Sometimes it's you and the guest talking about an issue, whether it's technology or media or policy making that intersects women uniquely. But sometimes it's just the fact that it's two women having that conversation and I think that's really powerful because the fact that women are having conversations around the next big privacy conversation or AI that matters, I think, too. Right?

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Absolutely. I mean, we started this when I looked around and I recognized I was the only woman at the FCC so rather than sitting on panel after panel talking about women in technology and what might be possible in the next generation, I think we just decided here and now what can we do to amplify the voices of women we know, women we think are doing really cool things in technology and make sure more people know about them and meet them.

MS. BLACK: So usually when we start the podcast episodes we hear you ask the quests where they got to where they are today, but we don't often hear your side of the story. For those who don't know how you became a commissioner, give us the cliff notes.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: The cliff notes. You know, a while ago I was giving remarks at a university and one of the students raised their hands and said, "Did you know from a very early age that you always wanted to be a commissioner at the FCC?" I listened to that question and remember saying really loudly and clearly, "No, absolutely not. Absolutely not."

MS. BLACK: What did you want to be when you were little?

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, you know, there was a period of time I wanted to be an architect, a period of time I thought being a teacher was good. There was a period of time where I thought I should be teaching the world how to ski, so I really was all over the map.

I wound up moving to Washington for personal reasons. It actually wasn't something that I had planned a long time ago. I was not one of those kids who was in the student body and running for student body president and always wanted to come to Washington and Capitol Hill.

I came here and had a job for a while working at a law firm where I worked on the privatization of a state-owned telephone company which, nerd alert, it doesn't sound interesting but I thought it was fascinating thinking about how you make networks efficient and what you could do to try to improve the availability of service.

After working on that for a while I had an opportunity to come to the FCC as a staffer because the agency was in the late stages of still implementing the law known as the Telecommunications Act of 1996. I worked there. Then over time I moved to the Office of Commissioner Michael Copps who was a real dynamo, a fantastic individual to work for, and a real mentor of mine.

After working for him for a few years I went to Capitol Hill and I worked in the trenches for the Senate Commerce Committee, first of Senator Inouye, and later for Senator Rockefeller who also was another mentor of mine. With Senator Rockefeller I worked on some really big issues including the development of a system for first responders to talk to one another nationwide.

MS. BLACK: This is out of 9/11 report.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah. And it was about 10 years after 9/11 and there was only one outstanding recommendation from the 9/11 Commission that Washington hadn't acted on, that Washington hadn't done a thing about.

That was making sure the police, fire fighters, and other first responders could talk to one another with their communications equipment. That was a problem on 9/11. It was well documented and we still did not develop a solution.

So this issue struck me professionally because I worked a lot on spectrum policy, but also personally because my mother lost her cousin in 9/11. The opportunity to try to be part of the solution here was really appealing.

I spent time working with Senator Rockefeller and eventually the White House developing a plan to repurpose some of our airwaves so that first responders could use them and that revenue could be raised from their sale.

MS. BLACK: This is what's called First Net.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's what became eventually First Net. I worked on it in its earliest days and earliest incarnation, but I'm really proud of that initiative because we identified a big problem and we came up with a way to try to address it.

As a result of my work there in the United States Senate, I was given the opportunity to come to the FCC and serve and help implement some of that where I learned that generating the ideas is easier than actually dealing with the details. It's been incredible to have that experience. I consider myself extremely lucky to have been able to work on these matters and see them up close.

MS. BLACK: So for someone listening to this and they are incredibly moved by your public service or your commitment to finding solutions to problems that exist, what advice do you have for someone, maybe that college student who is thinking about how to become an FCC commissioner, or just how to navigate Washington. You've seen it both on the Hill, you've seen it from private practice and now as a public servant. What advice do you have?

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah. I think my primary advice is ask for permission less. There are so many things I've managed to be able to do because I looked to my left and right and thought I need to get something done here. We need to move. We need to move fast. If I asked the permission of everyone around me, it's not going to happen.

But, you know, that advice makes me quake as a parent because were it to be passed on to my children, I would be nervous. I think the other piece of advice is that I would say to everyone who is looking ahead and trying to figure out what it is they can do next is it's just as important to look behind.

You need to pull up a seat to the table for someone else and be a mentor, be a sponsor, be someone who brings someone else along. I think that advice is some of the best advice that I've been given and I want to pass it on to as many people as I can because I think the more that we can build communities that support one another and try to solve problems the stronger we'll all be.

MS. BLACK: You talked a little bit about what you like about being an FCC commissioner with finding solutions and First Net being a great example of that. What is your favorite part of working here at the Commission and serving in this role?

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Let's see. The way I sometimes put it is I have a front row seat at the digital revolution.

MS. BLACK: That sounds pretty great.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah. I mean, I get to see every day the way that all this new technology is remaking every aspect of civic and commercial life. There are places that I get to see that I would never have the privilege of seeing but for public service.

I've been in Alaska in little villages that are not on the road system and I have seen through the power of Telehealth the opportunities they have to deliver first class care in some of our most remote locations. It's incredible.

I've also seen classrooms in urban and rural communities where students are doing work with technology that I never imagined before and it has made learning so much more vibrant, so much more interesting, and so much more fun. It's really, really exciting to see that up close. I consider it a great privilege.

MS. BLACK: So you touched on students and one of the issues that we work on all the time since I've been on your team, but I know you've been working on it even before that. You even coined the term homework gap. I don't think we could do a podcast without talking about it.

For those who don't quite know what this means, it doesn't mean the gap between your pencil and the paper. It means something broader than that. Break it down what it means, but also I think what are some solutions that you've seen around the country.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Sure. The way I describe it is that seven out of 10 teachers today assign homework that requires internet access, but FCC data shows that one in three households has no broadband. Where those numbers overlap is what I call the homework gap.

According to the Senate Joint Economic Committee the homework gap is real. There are 12 million students all across this country who do not have the access they need to do their nightly school work. That's so different from when I was growing up.

I mean, when I was growing up, if I wanted to do homework, there was paper, there was pencil, and there was my brother leaving me alone. That last one was the hardest part. Now you need internet access and I felt like this part of the digital divide needed a term so I coined it the homework gap.

I think it just really laser-like gets us to focus and how can we solve this problem. To me it is the cruelest part of the digital divide and there is so much that this agency can do to help address it.

MS. BLACK: It also kind of develops a ripple effect into a community, right?

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Absolutely.

MS. BLACK: If children can't do their schoolwork and aren't successful, it can hold a whole community back from moving ahead, right?

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah. I mean, you're going to need digital skills as an individual if you want to be successful, and your community is going to need to be digitally literate.

This is a part of a broader economic story in the United States that we have to address and there are things we can do. We can bring wifi to buses because school buses can turn ride time into connected time for homework and that can be a big deal in rural communities that have no service today.

We can also lend out hot spots in our school libraries. Maybe we can build a nationwide program where every school library has a hot spot to lend. If we did that, we can make a real dent in the homework gap and make it more possible for more kids to succeed in school.

MS. BLACK: Outside of the ones we've talked about, what issue do you wish people were paying more attention to? What issue is really at the front of your mind that you want people to know about?

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I think technology touches so many of our challenges. If you have a challenge out there, identify what it is that technology can do to help improve it. I've been talking a lot lately about maternal mortality. Full disclosure, I'm a mom so I think about it for those reasons. But also because the United States is the only industrialized country with an increasing rate of maternal mortality.

We are one of the most dangerous places to give birth in the world. We should fix that. When we look at what Telehealth and Telemedicine are developing, I'm wondering are there ways that communications technology can assist.

Women who are pregnant spend a lot of time at the doctor, and yet obstetric wards are closing in rural communities. It's hard for people to get to all of those appointments. How can we develop technologies that can help more women stay healthy during their pregnancies and successfully give birth.

I have gone now to the Mayo Clinic to Arkansas to talk to some of the doctors working on this technology and it feels to me like Telemedicine is part of the solution for this problem. I would like us to think more about addressing that problem and how connectivity can help.

MS. BLACK: Especially because this problem, not only to your point, affects so many women but also women of color especially hard.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Especially, especially. I feel like there's a solution in communications and adding broadband connectivity to the community I feel like there's an opportunity here to combine communications technology with health and get some better outcomes.

MS. BLACK: So at the end of every episode you ask your guests the same three questions so here they are right back to you. What was the first thing you ever did on the internet?

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So the thing that stays with me most is actually that iconic beep and hiss, so much so that when we decided to do this we had a discussion about what kind of music you do heading in and I just wanted to have that beep and hiss.

MS. BLACK: That crackle on the phone.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: The start of the internet age.

MS. BLACK: It is.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: We were starting something here, too, and it felt just right so that's what I remember most.

MS. BLACK: All right. So let's fast forward. What was the last thing you did on the internet?

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Well, it's back to school season. There are --

MS. BLACK: Backpacks to buy?

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah, you know, they're growing. The pants are short, the shoes don't fit. I'm combing right now looking for some sales and figure out what we're going to purchase. That is what I'm doing these days.

MS. BLACK: What do you think the future of the internet and digital life looks like? What do you hope for? This is a big question for a member of the FCC.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I know. I know. That's the loaded one. I think the future belongs to the connected. No matter who you are or where you live, you need access to modern communications to have a fair shot at 21st century success.

That is what I think about every day when I come to work here. That is what I hope all of our policies can favor and make happen because I believe in the end we're all going to need digital skills.

If we all have digital skills, we'll have opportunities not just to consume content but to create it and make our new digital landscape a little more diverse, more interesting, and more inclusive for all of us.

MS. BLACK: As a member of your staff, I take that on.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right, I like it. I like the enthusiasm.

MS. BLACK: So where can folks follow you with what's going on, what you're doing, what you're talking about.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Well, you can reach out to me through the FCC website. Because it's the FCC, our phones actually do work. We answer them. On Twitter I'm at the handle JRosenworcel.

MS. BLACK: Same in Instagram, right?

MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's true.

MS. BLACK: Okay. Well, that wraps up the one-year episode of Broadband Conversations. Thank you, Commissioner, for sitting in the hot seat this time around. It was great to talk to you and I hope our listeners enjoyed it.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah, the first year was pretty great. Buckle your seat belts. I can't wait for season number two.