WASHINGTON (CNS) — When Jessica Rosenworcel, recently appointed to a second term on the Federal Communications Commission, met with the U.S. bishops’ Communication Committee Oct. 12, she lauded the bishops for their stands on two critical issues facing the FCC, and asked for their help on a third.

Rosenworcel had an unexpected sabbatical between terms due to squabbling between the White House and the Senate that delayed her confirmation. She used the time off to catch her children’s dance recitals and Little League games, but also, she told committee members, to see how communications policy plays out in the real world.

“I return an impatient optimist, because I believe it is possible to build a better digital future for all of us,” she said. “I think the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops knows a thing or two about this. Because I know you are not just stewards of pastoral tradition, you are spirited advocates for a more just future.”

Rosenworcel, who is Jewish, told them: “We share the belief, common to both Catholic social teaching and the Jewish tradition of ‘tikkun olam,’ that a little ruckus in service of human dignity and the common good is a good thing.”

She outlined the dangers of closing off the open internet. “Net neutrality preserves our right to communicate freely online. It is the principle that internet service providers must provide access to all lawful content and applications regardless of source, without blocking or favoring certain products or web sites,” Rosenworcel said.

“As Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, suggests,” she continued, “net neutrality is the right to access what is online without discrimination. It took 10 years of policymaking and three trips to court, but the commission found a home for net neutrality in the Communications Act.”

Rosenworcel noted how the USCCB expressed concern about the possibility of the FCC dismantling net neutrality. “You have made clear that ‘without protections to prohibit internet providers from tampering with content delivery … the fundamental attributes of the internet, in which users have unfettered access to content and capacity to provide content to others, are jeopardized,'” she said.

“Moreover, you have eloquently made the case that the stakes for faith communities are especially high, as online platforms have become an essential way ‘to convey views on matters of public concerns and religious teachings.’ At the 50th World Communications Day, Pope Francis noted that ‘the digital world is a public square.’ I agree.”

Rosenworcel next tackled ownership issues in the light of a pending deal by Sinclair Broadcast Group to buy Tribune Co.’s TV stations.

“For decades, at the direction of Congress, the commission (FCC) has maintained limits on the number of broadcast stations that a single company can own. These limits were designed to help sustain media diversity, localism and competition. Those values may not be especially trendy, but I think they are solid,” Rosenworcel said.

“They play a critical role in advancing the mix of facts we all need to make decisions about our lives, our communities, and our country. I fear we are on the cusp of dismantling those values.”

Rosenworcel said, “I’m not alone in my concerns about the concentration that will result from this proposed transaction. I’m not alone in my fear that it will do harm to the time-tested principles of diversity, localism and competition.”

Her third issue was one she called the “homework gap.”

“Today, as many as seven in 10 teachers assign homework that requires access to broadband. But data from the commission (FCC) show that one in three households do not subscribe to broadband service. Where those numbers overlap is a new digital divide,” Rosenworcel declared.

“According to the Pew Research Center, there are 5 million households in this country with school-aged children that lack internet service at home. According to the Senate Joint Economic Committee, 12 million children live in homes that lack a broadband connection,” she added.

While the FCC “should clear our skies for more unlicensed spectrum — which will mean more Wi-Fi in more places and more places to do schoolwork,” Rosenworcel said, there are interim steps others, including churches, can take.

“We can turn ride time into connected time for homework with wireless routers on school buses. We can equip our libraries with hotspots available for loan. Companies can pitch in, too, with discounted plans and low-cost computers for households with school-aged kids,” she said. “We also can encourage our community institutions — including places of worship — to become safe places for schoolwork.”

Rosenworcel told the committee, “I hope you will consider the role you can play in bridging the homework gap, because I think it is the cruelest part of our new digital divide. But I think it is also within our power to fix it — and make a real difference.”

Acknowledging that the three issues were thorny, “getting them right means expanding access and opportunity,” Rosenworcel said. “I think speaking up about them is essential. Because I believe in the end you get the future you speak up for and fight for — and it’s time to make that future work for all of us.”


Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.