There’s never been so much attention being paid to the nomination of the fifth FCC Commissioner. That’s because there’s a lot at stake for our nation.
Nearly half of Americans can’t easily participate in the digital economy because they live in areas unserved or underserved by broadband providers. Gigi Sohn, who was appointed by the White House for the fifth spot on the five-member FCC, understands that Big Cable doesn’t have an answer or a strategy as to why they’re not making a serious investment in their infrastructure.
The cable industry is spending approximately $8 million a week on lobbying efforts to preserve its business model. Cable knows that if Gigi Sohn is appointed to the FCC, they’ll need to be accountable to American consumers.
The problem is that cable’s business model doesn’t work for most Americans who live in rural areas. A 2018 study by Microsoft (updated October 2020) showed that a whopping 37% of all Americans lack access to broadband service — that’s more than a third of America. The Microsoft study is in stark contrast to the FCC’s own maps that claim 96% of America can access minimum broadband speeds. Why the large disparity?
The FCC maps, which Sohn has committed to make accurate, rely on self-reported data from internet service providers (the same providers seeking to block Sohn’s nomination), while Microsoft relied on actual download and upload speeds achieved when customers ran Windows updates.
Today’s internet networks are largely built on the same infrastructure that was placed decades ago. It’s the same infrastructure we lived with during pandemic lockdowns, lacking the speed, reliability and capacity to meet today’s needs. And even with billions in annual government handouts, wide areas of disinvestment persist. Worse, most Americans would be shocked to learn that broadband is largely unregulated at any level of government.
Gigi Sohn understands this and will push the FCC and the cable industry for greater accountability.
In her testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee on Dec. 1, Sohn pointed to my company, UTOPIA Fiber, as a success story of publicly owned broadband networks. UTOPIA was born out of necessity in 2002 because incumbent providers weren’t willing to provide our member cities with the very connectivity city leaders and residents deemed necessary. However, the same problems persist today, which is why communities continue to join our all-fiber network.
While UTOPIA had some early-year growing pains, since 2009, we’ve designed, built and operated nearly $400 million worth of fiber-broadband projects throughout Utah at no cost to taxpayers. We exist today for the same reason we did 20 years ago: Broadband is critical infrastructure and increased competition serves to benefit residents and businesses.
Sohn recognizes that Americans need choice in the broadband market. While her approach is not prescriptive, she won’t take cues from cable to stifle successful taxpayer-owned broadband options like ours; she recognizes that competition — public or private — in the broadband market should be a national priority.
In the last few years, I’ve gotten to know Gigi Sohn as a charismatic and pragmatic leader in the telecommunications industry. I’ve found her to be thoughtful, thorough, prepared and reasonable. She listens to all sides and has been known to agree with those of differing political views. She not only understands how policy can impact our states and cities, but also how it can influence business and industry. Sohn wants to see policy that spurs innovation and investment, as well as economic development and jobs.
Her nomination concerns incumbent providers. If Gigi Sohn lands at the FCC, cable will need to be more accountable to consumers, businesses and taxpayers (who’ve subsidized their efforts for years with little in return). If our bipartisan national goal is to expand quality, affordable broadband service to all Americans, it requires a fifth FCC Commissioner who can work collaboratively across party lines—and with industry, business, consumers, and local government. Gigi Sohn is that person.
The bottom line is that if you’re unhappy with your internet service, you’ll want Gigi Sohn at the FCC.
Roger Timmerman is executive director of UTOPIA Fiber / Utah Infrastructure Agency and serves as a delegate of the Utah Republican Party.