This story is part of our new Chief Innovation Officer Forecast series with Quartz, a business report from the front lines of the future.
After nearly 800 days of political deadlock, the Senate finally voted this week to confirm Anna Gomez to fill a long-vacant commissioner seat at the new Federal Communications Commission. When the Democratic telecommunications lawyer assumes the role, it will give the party a 3-2 majority in the FCC for the first time during Joe Biden’s presidency. But who exactly is the new commissioner?
Gomez, who is the first Hispanic commissioner at the commission since 2001, was born in Orlando, Florida, and spent some of her childhood in Bogota, Columbia. After graduating with a law degree from George Washington University, Gomez spent years in corporate law, eventually serving as an Associate at Arnold and Porter and, importantly, Vice President for Federal and State Government Affairs at Sprint Nextel. Critics say that role is essentially a fancy word for a telecommunications lobbyist. T-Mobile and Sprint merged in 2020 as part of a $30 billion deal that led to a network of more than 100 million US wireless customers.
Though this is Gomez’s first sting as commissioner, she knows her way around the building. Gomez spent 12 years in a variety of corporate communications roles before joining the commission, including a stint as Deputy Chief of the International Bureau as well as Senior Legal Advisor to former FCC Chairman William Kennard. Most recently, Gomez served as a senior advisor in Biden’s State Department’s Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy.
Gomez’s nomination was applauded by both open internet advocacy groups and major telecommunications companies alike this week. Those who support Gomez’s nomination believe she could play a key role in returning Obama-era net neutrality protections. If that happens, internet service providers like AT&T or Comcast would be required to treat all internet traffic equally and not give certain businesses or customers preferential treatment. In theory, that could put a damper on ISP throttling or self-preferential “fast lanes.” Free Press, an organization that supports net neutrality and an open internet, welcomed Gomez’s nomination.
“I’m confident that Commissioner Gomez will be a champion for consumers. She has deep expertise on the issues and a strong track record of public service,” Free Press Co-CEO Jessica J. González said. Demand Communications Director Maria Langhol, meanwhile, released a statement saying Gomez is “eminently qualified to serve in this role, and will bring immense expertise.” FCC chair Jennifer Rosenworcel, a Democrat appointed by President Biden, similarly praised Gomez’s nomination.
“Anna brings with her a wealth of telecommunications experience, a substantial record of public service, and a history of working to ensure the United States stays on the cutting edge of keeping us all connected,” Rosenworcel said in a statement. “Her international expertise will be a real asset to the agency.”
Of course, not everyone is thrilled with the new FCC pick. Gomez was nominated by a relatively tight margin vote of 55 to 43, with telecom industry-friendly Republican lawmakers like Sen. Ted Cruz attempting to re-categorize her as a radical, left-wing ideologue. During a floor speech, The Washington Post notes, Cruz told other senators he “strongly opposed” Gomez and believed her notation would lead the FCC to pursue a “radical left-wing agenda, including investment-killing and job-killing so-called net neutrality rules.”
In the end, Sens. Susan Collins, Shelley Capito, Mike Rounds, Lisa Murkowski, and Todd Young were the only five Republicans who voted in support of Gomez.
But Republicans aren’t the only ones skeptical of Gomez. Government transparency groups like the Revolving Door Project have expressed concern that the lawyer’s long, entrenched relationships with major telecommunications companies may make her too soft on corporate interests. Big Telecom doesn’t exactly seem scared of Gomez either. Following her nomination, Comcast Chief Legal Officer Tom Reid called Gomez “exceptionally qualified.” Jonathan Spalter, the President and CEO of major telecom industry trade group USTelecom similarly praised the Senate’s vote.
Only time will tell how Gomez will vote and officiate in her new role but one thing is certain: she wasn’t Biden’s first choice. That distinction belonged to veteran consumer advocate and unabashed net neutrality supporter Gigi Sohn. Biden nominated her at the beginning of his presidency to fill the FCC’s vacant fifth seat. What initially seemed like a relatively straightforward party-line nomination vote devolved into a 16-month political slog fueled by an unprecedented injection of lobbyist cash on behalf of the telecom industry. During that time, the FCC was left politically deadlocked with two commissioners from each political party, limiting commissioners from pursuing any real progressive agenda.
Sohn eventually threw in the towel in March and withdrew her nomination. In an emphatic exit statement, Sohn said her nomination had been thwarted by “legions of cable and media industry lobbyists” who tried to discredit her with lies and smears. In the end, dark money won.
Gomez appears to be a compromise candidate intended to appease at least a handful of the weary Republicans and telecommunications groups spooked by Sohn’s explicitly pro-consumer point of view. That doesn’t necessarily mean Gomez and the new FCC are guaranteed to be ineffectual, but it’s possible the agency may be less aggressive in its progressive policy pursuits with Gomez in place and coming off of a more than two-year-long political slugfest. Complicating matters even further is the fact that another commission seat, currently held by Commissioner Geoffery Starks, is set to vacate in January 2024. If the Senate does not reconfirm his seat, we could be in store for yet another lengthy, lobbyist-fueled deadlock.