The New FCC Commissioner Helped the Agency Win a $48 Million Net Neutrality Lawsuit

Geoffrey Starks has been an assistant bureau chief at the FCC’s enforcement bureau since 2015.

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Jan 3 2019, 6:49pm

Image: FCC/Flickr

The Senate voted to confirm a new commissioner to the Federal Communications Commission late Wednesday. Geoffrey Starks, who was nominated in the summer to replace former Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, was unanimously confirmed, along with the re-confirmation of Commissioner Brendan Carr.

Starks will be filling the seat left vacant by Clyburn, a fierce net neutrality proponent who served on the FCC for nearly 9 years but announced her early departure last spring. The five-member commission always has two minority party representatives and three majority party representatives to match the party in control of the White House, so Starks will serve as the second Democrat commissioner alongside Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, and the overall power makeup of the commission does not change.

A lawyer by trade, Starks earned his law degree at Yale University after graduating magna cum laude from Harvard University. Though he started out in private practice, Starks quickly made the leap to public service, working at the Justice Department before moving to the FCC’s enforcement bureau as an assistant bureau chief in 2015.

It was during his tenure at the enforcement bureau that the FCC scored its first and only win under the then-active net neutrality protections. In October 2016, the agency reached a $48-million settlement with T-Mobile after an investigation revealed the telecom misled customers about its “unlimited” data plans.

“The FCC’s investigation found that company policy allows it to slow down data speeds when T-Mobile or MetroPCS customers on so-called ‘unlimited’ plans exceed a monthly data threshold,” a press release stated at the time. “Company advertisements and other disclosures may have led unlimited data plan customers to expect that they were buying better and faster service than what they received.”

In a questionnaire submitted to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation this summer, Starks said he believes the top three issues the FCC needs to address are access to the internet, protecting the public interest, and ensuring consumer-focused regulation.

"In this dynamic and fast-paced landscape, I believe the agency must focus on its core mission — connecting all of the American people to safe and secure networks that serve the public interest, protecting consumers, and promoting competition and innovation," he wrote.

Starks also worked closely on cleaning up fraud and abuse in the FCC’s Universal Service Fund programs, former enforcement bureau chief Travis LeBlanc told Politico. This includes the Lifeline program, a phone and internet subsidy program for the poor. The program has faced increased criticism over the last few years due to instances of abuse and fraud. These problems were highlighted in a 2016 Government Accountability Office report that found a third of subscribers it looked at could not be confirmed to be eligible for the program.

During President Obama’s tenure, critics on the right attempted to brand the program “Obamaphone” and singled it out as an example of inappropriate government handouts. Some on the right have attempted to cut the program entirely, while those on the left worked to expand it.

The program is, overall, considered an important service that’s worth preserving. It provides more than 10 million Americans with their only access to communication, allowing them to contact emergency services, health care, and apply for jobs. The FCC has been working for years to clean house and reform the program. With his background working on this effort, Starks will be following in Clyburn’s footsteps. The former Commissioner helped to expand the program to include internet coverage and wanted to improve communication access for incarcerated Americans.

Still, Clarks and Rosenworcel will remain outnumbered on the Commission, meaning FCC Chair Ajit Pai’s anti-net neutrality, pro-corporate agenda will continue to advance. Though it seems the chair’s interest align at least somewhat with the new recruit, according to his statement on the confirmation.

“I was excited to hear him highlight the need to expand rural broadband and the power of telemedicine,” Pai said in his statement. “I look forward to working with him and having a fellow Kansan on the Commission.”