President Joe Biden’s administration announced a raft of nominations for various posts this week, but picks for four key telecom roles at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) remained outstanding.
Eight months into Biden’s presidency, both agencies sit without permanent leaders. In addition to lacking a fixed chairperson, the FCC is missing a fifth commissioner to round out its membership. This has left the commission split evenly along political lines. The NTIA, meanwhile, is operating with its top two posts – the roles of Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information and Deputy Assistant Secretary – vacant.
Recon Analytics’ founder Roger Entner told Fierce it’s unclear why nominations for these roles haven’t been made given their prominence. “After [cabinet] secretaries, these are the next most important people,” he said. “These people can make policy…These agencies can make rules that are law-like.”
Blair Levin, an advisor with New Street Research, pointed out the administration has a lot on its plate. “While I think it's important, the White House has a lot of issues to address and I am pretty sure no historian is going to write that the fate of this Presidency was determined by the appointment or the delay,” he told Fierce.
Political deadlock at the FCC has previously been noted as an impediment to Biden’s calls for the reinstatement of net neutrality protections. But Entner said the NTIA vacancies have also taken on a special importance given the looming infrastructure bill. While the FCC has previously been the agency in charge of doling out telecom funds, Entner noted the NTIA will head distribution of the billions earmarked for broadband if the pending legislation is approved.
“It would be nice to have a chairperson there to actually be in charge of distributing an unprecedented amount of money,” he said. “If I were president and this were my signature thing, I would make sure I would have somebody there who is actually my person who distributes that money.”
Levin agreed “the delay is problematic because building a team and an ecosystem (as state and local governments are a big piece of the puzzle) to appropriately distribute those funds takes time.” However, he argued “the biggest bottlenecks are not NTIA or FCC leadership. They are the mapping, which the last administration did not do well, and the state broadband efforts where states are just ramping up their capabilities.”
Jennifer Richter, head of the Communications and Information Technology Practice at legal and lobbying firm Akin Gump, contended it’s not clear the White House needs to do anything other than make the acting heads of the FCC and NTIA permanent leaders to end “any uncertainty the delayed nominations” are causing.
She added “From my vantage point, the only thing impacted by not having a permanent FCC Chair, and having a 2-2 split at the FCC, is the ability to take up controversial issues such as net neutrality, but perhaps that isn’t all bad as it gives the FCC room to focus on accomplishing other important objectives that are not so ideological and divisive.”