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'New Normal'

Few FCC Meetings Happening In-Person With Most Staff Mostly Still Remote

The FCC “reopened” for in-person meetings in June, but the agency hasn’t seen a wholesale return to them, and most meetings between staff and industry remain virtual, as they have been since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, based on a review of ex parte filings and interviews with lawyers and FCC officials. Some expect more in-person meetings starting after Labor Day, depending on what happens on COVID infection rates during August.

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Monthly commission meetings are in person, but all meetings by FCC Federal Advisory Committee Act groups have been virtual since the start of the pandemic. The Communications Security, Reliability and Interoperability Council meeting scheduled for December is already on record as “online only.” Some meetings may move back to FCC headquarters. Officials said at the end of Precision Ag Connectivity Task Force meeting last month an October meeting will be virtual, but a year-end meeting could be in person (see 2207210062).

The commissioners and their aides are spending more time at the FCC’s new headquarters, but most staffers are still mostly working from home.

There are rumors the FCC will try to get more people into the office and have more in-person meetings starting in September, a senior regulatory attorney said. “I guess we all got used to Teams meetings, and they do cut down on travel for out-of-towners,” a wireless lawyer said. A lawyer with carrier clients said “body language is meaningful” during meetings and while the commissioners hold video meetings, the bureaus and offices usually don't.

Reluctance to meet virtually “is mostly from the FCC side,” said Fletcher Heald’s Francisco Montero: “I have a couple of clients that want to have meetings with FCC staff to discuss [equal employment opportunity] holds on renewal applications and other delayed application processing, but we have been told that many at the FCC are still teleworking and that they prefer virtual meetings.”

Most discussions thus far have been virtual,” emailed Andrew Schwartzman, senior counselor at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society: “As someone who is old enough to be in a COVID-vulnerable category, I would personally prefer that more routine meetings be virtual for the time being. However, I have recently been asked to come in to the commission for a few important meetings.”

From an advocate's perspective, “in-person meetings can be much more useful for many reasons, and in the long run I expect that pre-COVID practices will resume,” Schwartzman said. “However, we have crossed the Zoom Rubicon, and I imagine that many more routine interactions will be conducted virtually in the future,” he said: “One more factor to consider is that the commission's new location is not as easily accessible for those who work downtown. This alone may result in more virtual meetings.”

Though the FCC is ostensibly back to in-person work, the agency has been expansive in granting telework requests for staff, said Tracy Bridgham, president of the FCC chapter of the National Treasury Employees Union. Since shifting to Phase 3 of its re-entry plan, the agency has accommodated every full-time telework request, she said. “Our impression is that most employees have been to the building to unpack and get their badges updated, but daily attendance seems quite low.”

Bridgham said the union is aware that in-person meetings have happened “but not very many.” Most meetings at the agency “are hybrid, and we know that most employees and their equipment are functioning very well at home,” she said. The agency hasn’t told the union it’s seeking to move to Phase 4, which would be a return to the FCC’s pre-pandemic operations. “Employees will receive at least 30 days’ notice and the FCC agreed it would strive for 45” days' notice before a move to Phase 4, Bridgham told us.

The FCC's union is apparently pushing for more remote rather than in-person work and Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel got pushback when she suggested that FCC employees should come in for at least one day a week, said Digital Progress Institute President Joel Thayer. “It's kind of nuts,” he said. Thayer said “this will come down to” Rosenworcel’s office’s negotiations with the union.

It's summer, we have a COVID spike, and the FCC is now located in a building that is less convenient to reach by Metro,” said Public Knowledge Senior Vice President Harold Feld. “It should not be surprising that most folks are still doing mostly virtual meetings.” Feld said he hasn’t felt pressure to switch to in-person meetings: “I expect the dynamic will change after Labor Day.”

The “new normal” is virtual meetings, said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Program at New America. “I’m fairly sure the staff have found that video or phone meetings are more efficient, especially since meeting space was always at a premium and took up additional staff time, at least at the old building” and “virtual meetings can be scheduled without being sure of who will be in the office on what days since few people in any office have returned full time,” he said.

ACA Connects Senior Vice President-Government Affairs Ross Lieberman said virtual meetings are convenient and have their place, but there’s also a material benefit to being in person. He expects to use both options going forward.

There’s a lot you can accomplish in an in-person meeting that can’t be accomplished over Zoom,” said Cheryl Leanza, of the United Church of Christ Media Justice Ministry. She hasn’t been to an in-person meeting at the FCC yet but said in-person meetings in the industry are becoming more common again. “There’s still a strong place for in-person meetings,” she said.

Pillsbury Winthrop broadcast attorney Scott Flick said virtual meetings are far more practical when the participants live all over the country. He said in-person meetings are valuable but need to be particularly important to make it worthwhile for all participants to physically attend. The FCC declined comment.