How Jessica Rosenworcel Is Shaping Our Digital Future

05/06/2015 05:14 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2015

(Photo: Mandel Ngan via Getty Images)

This article is part of a Huffington Post series, on the occasion of the site's 10th anniversary, looking at some of the people and issues that will shape the world in the next decade.

WASHINGTON -- Over a decade ago, the Federal Communications Commission stood firm against indecency on the airwaves. It took a hard line against expletives on award shows and became a punchline for many, including rapper Eminem. Today, those efforts seem petty and antiquated, the last vestiges of a culture war. Yet rather than fade away with those old disputes, the FCC has now assumed a central role in shaping America's digital future.

As profound as our reliance on data is today, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel says it’s only beginning. Around the bend lies the “Internet of Things,” where billions of machines with sensors -- everything from heart implants to thermostats -- will communicate with one another over vast networks.

“This is exciting. It’s full of potential to make us more efficient, more effective and more connected in so many parts of our lives,” Rosenworcel told The Huffington Post. “It’s also why the work of the FCC right now is so important.”

Rosenworcel, who was confirmed as an FCC commissioner in 2012, works in a no-frills federal building in Washington that could have served as a set for the movie "Office Space." It's a far cry from the sun-drenched campuses of Silicon Valley, but no less important to digital influence. As of 2013, there were over 335 million active wireless devices in the United States, more than the U.S. population. We use Wi-Fi to stream TV and movies, chat with friends and loved ones, look up directions, do our jobs and our schoolwork, even call 911 in an emergency. And Rosenworcel is determined that everyone has access.

The issue of broadband access leapt into the national spotlight this year as activists battled the country's major telecom and cable companies over the principle of net neutrality. Internet service providers oppose strong FCC regulations that prohibit them from prioritizing certain web traffic. Supporters of net neutrality argue that all Internet traffic should be treated equally.

In February, the FCC, led by Democratic Chairman Tom Wheeler, passed robust net neutrality rules by a vote of 3-2. The agency's two Republican commissioners opposed the decision, but the other two Democrats, Rosenworcel and Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, sided with Wheeler to cast the deciding votes.

“We [have] a duty -- a duty to protect what has made the Internet the most dynamic platform for free speech ever invented,” Rosenworcel said in a speech that day. “It is our printing press. It is our town square. It is our individual soapbox and our shared platform for opportunity.”

Since Rosenworcel became a commissioner three years ago, she has quickly gained a reputation within the political and tech communities as a rising star. “She is both the most practical and most visionary at the same time,” said Marvin Ammori, a lawyer who has represented corporations and nonprofits before the FCC during Rosenworcel's stints as a staffer and a commissioner. “Jessica thinks about what networks enable and how they empower people and businesses and new ideas.”

Rosenworcel, 43, spent the bulk of her childhood in Hartford, Connecticut. Her father is a nephrologist, and her mother has helped run a soup kitchen for more than two decades. Her brother plays drums in the alternative rock band Guster, and her husband is a media lawyer.

After practicing communications law in the private sector, Rosenworcel got her start at the FCC in 1999 working for the Wireline Competition Bureau, which aims to ensure that all Americans have access to affordable communications. In 2003, she started working for then-FCC Commissioner Michael Copps. Copps is a staunch advocate for the public interest -- when the FCC approved the merger of Comcast and NBC-Universal in 2011, he was the lone dissenter -- and Rosenworcel took his views to heart.

“He’s a remarkable public servant with a terrific mix of strength, determination and grace,” she told HuffPost. "He’s got deeply held values about what is essential in communications, and I learned so much from him.”

Rosenworcel also took inspiration from her bosses on Capitol Hill, where she worked starting in 2007. She served as senior communications counsel for the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation under then-Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), another man unafraid to make cable companies squirm. They labored over legislation to create a broadband network for first responders, designed to counteract the problems that emergency personnel faced during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Creation of the network, still a work in progress, was in part personal for Rosenworcel, who lost a relative in the Twin Towers.

Rockefeller called Rosenworcel "unbelievably brilliant." She “sees things out in the future, and she sees how they’ll intersect," he said. “Very few people want to take her on, because she’s usually more informed.”

These days, Rosenworcel is firmly focused on tomorrow's technological challenges. "It is time to supersize Wi-Fi," she told the crowd at the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, in March.

Despite the seeming ubiquity of Wi-Fi, about 5 million households with school-age children do not have high-speed Internet access at home, according to an analysis released in April by the Pew Research Center. But at least seven out of 10 teachers assign homework that requires Internet access, Pew has reported. Rosenworcel frequently draws attention to this discrepancy, which she calls “the homework gap.” She has pointed to Pinconning, Michigan, for example, a town with a population of about 1,300, where parents reportedly drive their kids to a fast food franchise so they can get online and do their homework. Kids who can’t afford food sit in the parking lot.

To address this, Rosenworcel and her fellow FCC commissioners want to expand public access to high-speed broadband. Last year, they updated the government's E-Rate program, which brings discounted Internet access to schools and libraries, and increased funding for it by $1.5 billion annually.

Rosenworcel champions the idea of setting aside more space in the airwaves for Wi-Fi. Americans' demand for wireless -- for laptops, speakers, video game consoles and other Bluetooth devices -- is skyrocketing. To manage this traffic, the FCC parcels out the airwaves through a process known as spectrum allocation. Rosenworcel is a big advocate for setting aside more spectrum for consumers' use, as well as essentially paying federal agencies to release spectrum for commercial use.

To her, however, expanding Wi-Fi access isn't just about helping people get online. The Internet, she believes, will help build stronger schools, improve city services and unleash more Americans' creative potential. It's also critical to U.S. competitiveness in the global economy, which depends on having a tech-literate workforce.

That's why, when she talks about technical issues like spectrum allocation, Rosenworcel isn't afraid to release her inner nerd. Spectrum, she gushed, is “the most exciting stuff you don’t see!”

Rosenworcel also hopes to break down another major roadblock to America's future success: the lack of diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “When it comes to technology, there are too few women in the room,” she told HuffPost. At the time of our interview, she was reading The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, a history of the digital revolution that inescapably demonstrates the traditional dominance of white men in technology and yet also highlights Ada Lovelace, a 19th century mathematician credited as being the world's first computer programmer.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who has worked with Rosenworcel on communications issues, points to her as an exemplar in her field. When men speak about these issues, Eshoo said, their expertise is assumed. “It’s so important," she said, "that a woman who holds the position that she does have a mastery.”

Eshoo added, “She's respected, but she's done it the old-fashioned way. She's earned that respect.”

If there’s one thing that Rosenworcel knows, it’s that changing technology is going to force government regulators to move faster. She’s keen on the idea of government “sandboxes” -- a concept used in Silicon Valley where innovators set up small projects and expose them to real-world conditions. “It takes an instant for innovation to invert what we think we know,” she said. “We’re going to have to figure out how to test more ideas and learn from them fast.”

Just because our future is changing fast, however, doesn’t mean that longtime values must be discarded. “We still care about public safety, universal access, competition and consumer protection,” Rosenworcel said. “We still need to focus on those values -- but going forward we need to honor them in new ways.”

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