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Getting to Know Nathan Simington

Republican commissioner expresses empathy for broadcasters facing business challenges

Nathan Simington is still wondering how he got that first White House interview.

He was chosen for the Federal Communications Commission after President Trump abruptly pulled the renomination of Commissioner Michael O’Rielly. The latter had openly questioned whether the FCC had legal authority to issue new social media regulations.

Formerly senior advisor at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Simington was confirmed to the FCC by the Senate in December 2020 on a 49–46 party line vote, with GOP colleagues touting his light-touch regulatory approach.

Simington, 42 and a native of Saskatchewan, Canada, holds one of two current Republican seats on the commission. As 2022 dawned, almost a year after President Biden took office, the FCC still had two Democrats and two Republicans, with the nomination of Democrat Gigi Sohn for the remaining seat held up on Capitol Hill.

The commissioner’s profile with broadcasters grew when he spoke in late autumn to state broadcast association events in Massachusetts and Ohio.

“The reality is: It’s hard out there for broadcasters,” he said at one event, expressing particular empathy for owners with just one or a handful of stations.

“Can we seriously think, at this moment, with the arrows pointing in the directions that they are, that we should be making it harder for these small, regulated entities to operate? You are all already burdened by a raft of regulations designed for a bygone era while your insurgent online competitors have functionally none of the same constraints. Should we now turn the screw?”

He also said the FCC should wait rather than make more changes to media ownership rules just now, recommending a strategy of “purposeful nothingness.”

Radio World interviewed Simington in December.

Radio World: Describe your regulatory philosophy.

Nathan Simington: I did not come up through the Washington regulatory world, I came up through the private capital world. Before joining the NTIA I was at a very large cellphone distributor and services company, and before that I was in private [law] practice.

When I’m looking at regulatory questions I feel like you really can’t divorce them from the questions about the effects on the markets and the capital market. So we need to put more of a premium on the question of regulatory certainty and stability.

Businesses can adapt to about any kind of stable environment, but what they can’t adapt to is an environment they can’t predict. Conveying certainty to the market, instead of constantly fiddling with regulations in order to reach some kind of imagined ideal state, is how we get to the overall public interest, necessity and convenience, and therefore fulfill our mission at the FCC.

This is especially important in broadcast and telecommunications because operators can’t plan for long-range builds when they can’t predict the operating environment they’ll be in. If the degree of uncertainty becomes too much, companies will restrict themselves. If we take that approach we’ll do more harm than good.

If we maintain stability, that will better serve the public.

RW: You’ve talked about challenges facing small radio broadcasters who must compete with mega online platforms. Broadcasters have argued that FCC regulations should acknowledge that radio and TV compete with less-regulated digital competitors.

Simington: There has always been a sense at the commission that broadcasting is special and that broadcasting occupies a different spot in the landscape than online video distribution. If you look at the materials coming out of the 2016 quad [quadrennial review], that was exactly the approach the commission took, saying that as of yet there is real no equivalency of service.

I think that discussion is going to continue to come under scrutiny.

The find of non-equivalence in 2016 was premised on the lack of adaptation that large online companies make to local conditions. I would turn that in its head and ask: “How much of broadcasting really was local prior?” Obviously there are elements of broadcasting that is very local. But a lot of broadcasting was nationally syndicated shows and in that world.

The FCC has always assumed that broadcast and online have been separate markets. But I think that decision grows less and less tenable and has to be justified by better and better fact finding. And if we can’t satisfy the standard, we’ll have to decide what it means when an entity we are regulating is competing with an entity that is almost totally unregulated — in some cases a small mom-and-pop scale versus a large international corporation.

RW: Does this mean less regulation for radio and TV or more regulation for big tech?

Simington: Based on how the younger generation consumes media, the distinction between broadcasters and online video distributors is becoming increasingly hard to [describe as] different markets. At some point, we have to ask how the premise that has been explicit in the law — that broadcasters have a special mission and thus require the FCC to maintain them as viable private commercial enterprises —interacts with the increased presence of big tech in the space and in local advertising dollars.

Fact finding previously has found these are different markets. I would encourage the commission to place that assumption under intense scrutiny, because from my perspective and my interaction with broadcasters, it is becoming farther and farther from the actual state of play.

RW: What is your view about the argument by the National Association of Broadcasters that radio and TV are unfairly burdened with regulatory fees, subsidizing FCC costs for oversight of entities that pay no fees?

Simington: The whole question of regulatory fees as a burden has been something my office has been on ever since I was confirmed. It is important to rethink the entire regulatory fee framework on a regular basis because the commission’s traditional division into broadcasting, wireless and wireline, while still viable today, doesn’t fully capture the reality of how media is consumed today.

As to whether regulatory fees should be accessed to online companies, that raises a bigger question: How are we going to regulate these online companies going forward?

Online companies is a grab-bag term. On the one hand, if Amazon is an online company, that’s different than saying Google is an online business. These are highly diversified businesses, in one case a big delivery and logistics business, in another case a server business, and in yet another a business that primarily runs on data.

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Finding a regulatory response has been difficult, not only for the FCC but for the Federal Trade Commission and Congress. I think a lot will depend on how Congress decides to treat the question of online companies and these new emerging categories in American business.

Whether it is fair to assess fees entirely on the back of broadcasters, when broadcasters are point of fact responsible for a much smaller portion of audio and video delivery, is really a question that answers itself. But the question of how to assess fees might turn on much larger questions before Congress.

RW: Do you support changing or eliminating local “subcaps” on how many radio stations a given entity can own in a market?

Simington: There is some inertia to overcome at the regulatory and at the congressional level of where broadcast stands to the economy as a whole. The broadcast sector is under pressure that it will find difficult to recover from without more thoughtful broadcast regulation in this country.

From my perspective, broadcasters have made a real commitment to build out local news and other local journalism. As such they have decided their market differentiator is localism.

So with that commitment to local content I’m less concerned about back-office function consolidation. Therefore I’d like to see liberalization of the ownership rules.

On the other hand, liberalization is widely perceived by many as allowing a single voice to dominate. But I would ask the obvious question that if we are concerned about a single voice dominating here, why are do we not care in other venues of media distribution?

I’m not sure if there is a coherent answer to that, other than this is just the way we have always done it.

RW: The FM band has become more crowded, most recently thanks to a huge increase in the number of translators. Is the commission concerned?

Simington: I really haven’t heard anything within the commission focusing on this issue right now. That could be a problem since the airwaves in general are coming under further pressure. I think the commission should take this up combined with my concern over receiver standards and the general question of how do we get a more efficient utilization of the bandwidth, which we can’t change. But there is no current item focusing on FM crowding.

RW: Many broadcasters say the commission let them down by cutting deeply into the number of enforcement personnel and field offices, and that the result is even less attention to pirate radio and harmful interference.

Simington: FCC personnel is growing again. It should bring a renewed focus on field enforcement. And one thing I’m working on — though I do not have details yet — is looking at delegating some type of enforcement powers outside the media sphere to local law enforcement, provided we can get across the necessary tech challenges. If that is the case hopefully more Enforcement Bureau resources will be available for this question.

RW: What are your thoughts about the FCC’s AM revitalization efforts?

Simington: It’s been a very valuable effort. I think it is a mistake to assume, as some people do, that other channels of media distribution will supersede the importance of AM radio.

RW: Revitalization was pushed by former Chairman Ajit Pai. What are your thoughts on his accomplishments?

Simington: I wish I’d had the chance to serve with him longer. I think he accomplished a lot.

Getting outside the world of radio for a second, he was massively instrumental in expanding broadband access in the United States. He did a lot of ensure that broadband quality got better. I’m proud of his work on spectrum auctions and COVID relief.

Something that doesn’t get much play in the media are infrastructure initiatives to make it faster and easier to deploy and launch.

Most important for radio might have been winning the Prometheus case, even though that happened after he had left the commission. Winning that paves the way for potential media liberalization on a number of fronts. The FCC now has more freedom of operation in this area than we have had in 17 or 18 years.

RW: The Senate recently confirmed Chairwoman Rosenworcel. What has it been like working with her?

Simington: I think she has done a fantastic job under sometimes trying circumstances throughout 2021. There is no doubt she has delivered successfully on a number of time-sensitive programs that Congress has given us, in some cases without real precedent. She has been bipartisan. We’ve gotten a lot done in the public interest. There have been a lot of 4–0 votes. We have had a wonderful collegial relationship.

Nonetheless, as acting chair there were maybe some items you wouldn’t take up that you would once you are full chair. She and I have been working on a number of long-term in initiatives. So my hope is that in 2022 that — despite the virtual assurance that the commission will emerge with a partisan majority, as it should — I nonetheless expect us to have many forward-looking partisan and non-partisan issues to take up in order to strengthen American competitiveness, improve security, improve efficiency and advance technology.

RW: What is your view on the nomination of Gigi Sohn?

Simington: When I’ve spoken to Gigi Sohn I’ve been very impressed. She is known for being very tough and very smart, and also has this rare quality where she is personally liked by those she has disagreements with. There is no question she knows the issues backwards and forwards. If she is confirmed I’m sure there are any number of issues where we can work in the public interest. I’m sure we’ll disagree on a few things, but that is politics.

RW: What is your personal experience with radio?

Simington: I grew up in rural southern Saskatchewan. My family homesteaded there in the early 1900s. So radio has been a very important part of my grandparent’s lives, my parent’s lives and my life. AM radio was the best mass media we had. We had a few snowy TV channels when I was young but that was it. I grew up with the radio always on.

RW: You recently made some warm remarks about the role of radio. Can you expand on those?

Simington: The historical role of radio in American life cannot be overstated as the first national medium. My background before I became a lawyer was in classical music. For me and a lot of people their first exposure to many kinds of music have been through the radio.

As for radio’s role today, before coming to Washington I spent a number of years in Florida, which has an extremely vibrant local radio culture. I was surprised by the relationship between radio stations and listeners and how loyal those relationships became. Radio was a big part of civic participation.

The thing about radio is that it is not just a technology but its own medium with its own culture and audience. And it has always been defined by being local. People make a conscious decision to tune to radio for critical information.

RW: When the Trump administration put your name forth you expressed some surprise that you’d been nominated. What do you think drew the president or his staff to you at the time?

Simington: Well I think the administration was even surprised by the situation it found itself in. I’m not going to speculate on exactly how my name ended up in the hat. I know the administration made a very broad appeal for potential commissioners. When I went to the White House to speak to the presidential personnel office for the first time I didn’t know what to tell them, so I told them what I had observed in my time in private industry about certain negative effects of capital management practices that I thought might impede the buildout of 5G. Maybe that was just nerdy enough to get it over the line.

But it was a process that involved building credibility. Frankly, it was a lot of learning, but I realized that the mandate of the FCC is so broad it just isn’t possible to know it all from the outside. I’ve had the opportunity to learn from some of the best on my way up so maybe that helped me get across the line.

RW: How does the FCC differ from the NTIA in its culture or inner workings?

Simington: The NTIA is one of the most underappreciated agencies in the federal government, though that is likely to change since it has been given the responsibility of disbursing so many funds during the broadband buildout.

The NTIA is a much smaller agency, about 250 people versus about 1,500 at the FCC, and as an executive branch agency it is not politically independent the way the FCC is. Instead the director reports directly to the president despite the agency being in Commerce.

As far as internal culture, the FCC has a much broader mandate because commercial and private use of spectrum is much greater than at the NTIA. The stakeholders are very different. Accountability is different.

Common qualities include engineering excellence and the commitment to the public mission. At the FCC we always try to be engineering-forward and fact-serving.

RW: How would you characterize your interaction with the Biden administration?

Simington: It’s actually been somewhat limited. Not any of it in a negative way. I tend to face industry more than I tend to face the administration. As far as politicization of the commission, I haven’t seen many signs of it. The administration has expressed views on issues related to the commission’s mission and our long-term activities. It really hasn’t impacted our deliberations or practices.

It’s only natural for an administration to have views on policy that intersect with our mission. External relations with the White House are more the province of Chairwoman Rosenworcel’s office. That’s not to say there isn’t any contact, but I would most likely go through her office to communicate with the White House.

Typically the FCC has had a very strong relationship with Congress. That has been more important for what I have been working on.

RW: The chairwoman has said that the latest data about broadcast ownership makes clear that women and people of color are underrepresented. What if anything should the FCC do? And do you support legislation to revive a tax certificate program for socially disadvantaged individuals?

Simington: The numbers are hard to argue with. As far as what we can do about it though … I would also note that women, people of color, and people who are both have a variety of other instruments [available] to invest their money in; so the question of whether broadcast is where they want to place their money, rather than some other business, is in part a question of how attractive broadcasting is.

I see no shortage of grassroots interest from women or people of color wanting to participate in broadcasting. But there is always a question of making a return.

Anything that conditions licenses on, for example, ownership demographics is “push,” where what we probably need is “pull.” The pull I would like to see is a more stable business environment, greater opportunity for growth and return, and the ability to finance licenses, if we can figure out ways to work around the problems of the past.

RW: She also has reconstituted the Communications Security, Reliability and Interoperability Council. Are you supportive of redirecting its focus?

Simington: The FCC has a pretty clear mandate to work on questions of signal security that bleed into questions of IT security. So I welcome increased involvement in this area.

There has always been a question of the degree to which the commission should involve itself in cybersecurity matters because it does not traditionally have a staff of cybersecurity experts, and it would require big changes to the commission and probably substantial growth to fill out a fully fledged cybersecurity arm.

As I noted in my comments about tech companies, it’s not even clear what our regulatory mandate is when it comes to cybersecurity. I view the chairwoman’s position as a thoughtful balance between prior muted attempts to turn us into a fully fledged cybersecurity agency on the one hand, and the renunciation of jurisdiction in areas where I think we should exercise it on the other.

RW: Any final thoughts as we enter 2022?

Simington: I certainly wish broadcasters the best. I think now is a fine time for us to look back at the developments of the past few years, including both pressure and recovery in the broadcast sector, and continue to recognize the vital importance of broadcast and local journalism in American life.

If there is one thing that has become clear in my discussions with broadcasters, it is their strong sense of mission. And you can’t buy that or teach it. People really feel a passion for broadcasting and their communities, and that is why they work in the field.

“Music was my first love”

Nathan Simington originally pursued a career in classical music and violin performance. He hoped to turn pro as a violinist or pursue a Ph.D. in music theory.

Simington started studying violin seriously at age 11 while growing up in Canada. He moved to the United States to train on the instrument at Lawrence University.

“In music, my three areas of focus were in more effective means of training violinists, including the convertible counterpoint theories of the Russian musicologist Sergei Taneyev and the unpublished works of Romanian composer George Enescu. I received a Presser Foundation grant in 2005 to research Enescu’s manuscripts with experts in Cluj, Romania, and Bucharest,” Hungary, he said.

A native of Saskatchewan, Canada, Simington he received a green card in 2007, allowing him to work in the United States outside his area of training. He became interested in law school while working in pharmaceutical market research.

The commissioner is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and also holds degrees from the University of Rochester and Lawrence University. Simington earned a Masters of Music Theory from Eastman School of Music.

Prior to joining the NTIA, he was senior counsel to Brightstar Corp., an international mobile device services company. The Republican commissioner at the time led and negotiated telecommunications equipment and services transactions with leading providers in over twenty countries. Even earlier, prior to joining Brightstar, he worked as an attorney in private practice.

Prior to joining the FCC he was senior advisor at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, where he worked on various aspects of telecommunications policy, including spectrum allocation and planning, broadband access and the U.S. government’s role in the internet.

Simington is now a U.S. citizen and lives in Virginia with his wife and three children.