Gigi Sohn is still awaiting confirmation by the Senate to complete the Federal Communications Commission – an independent agency of the federal government’s executive branch that has been stuck at a 2-2 split of Democrats and Republicans since President Biden took office. . The FCC is supposed to operate with five commissioners, with the ruling president’s party having 3 seats.
She was the obvious choice in December 2020, when it was clear that Joe Biden would take office. With decades of experience in telecommunications and media policy, as well as a recent stint as an advisor to Tom Wheeler when he was chairman of the FCC, she was among the most qualified people to serve on it since I started working in telecommunications in 2007. And by among, I mean at the top.
I have known Gigi for many years and have respected her since the first time I saw her in action. She is not a political agent trying to find the best way to the top. She has strong beliefs, and she’ll tell you what they are in a wonderful blur of Long Island passion. She respects other beliefs and ideas, but she’s not going to pretend she agrees with you if you don’t.
My word may not be so persuasive, as I tend to agree with Sohn on many points. But a lot of people with a lot more credibility among the conservatives have spoken on Gigi. So I hadn’t written anything about it because I thought it would take some time, but Gigi would be confirmed. Also, I focus my work outside of DC and there’s a lot going on that keeps us busy.
Gigi has always been criticized by people like the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page, which made unsubstantiated statements that she is not committed to free speech, using tortured logic to deny mergers. If I left every time this group interfered with the good work of their reporters, I wouldn’t be doing anything else.
But then some allies passed me claims from a former senator from North Dakota Heidi Heitkamp – someone I listened to being interviewed on podcasts and generally thought well because she sounds practical. But Heitkamp’s attacks on Gigi are so offbeat that I had to react because I often work with people in rural areas for whom this question is not theoretical. They have suffered for more than a decade from federal and state mismanagement of broadband expansion programs. Their towns are struggling as hospitals close and jobs move to more accessible areas. Their children have fewer educational opportunities. They face a greater risk of communication breakdowns during natural disasters. It is important to do things right.
Several off-base complaints about Gigi Sohn and rural America
Heitkamp repeatedly claims that Gigi’s confirmation would be bad for rural America based on misinterpreted quotes or taking them out of context to claim that Gigi is unconcerned with rural broadband challenges. Like that:
- During an April 2021 interview with Government Bloomberg, stating ‘What [have we gotten] for [the federal government’s existing] A $50 billion investment? Not a lot.’
Is this a sign that Gigi thinks we shouldn’t be spending money in rural America? That’s what Heitkamp wants you to believe. But the very next passage of this article says this:
- “What do we get for an investment of 50 billion dollars? Not much,” she said in an interview. “What we don’t want is to be in the position we are in today: where we built networks that were for then, and not for now, and not for the future.”
The article discusses whether money spent on rural broadband subsidies should be built using yesterday’s or tomorrow’s technology. Gigi has been on the right side of this issue – we should make sure that investments in rural America will solve the problem for good.
Heitkamp served as a senator from 2013 to 2019, a time when the federal government gave billions of dollars to the biggest telecom monopolies — like AT&T. They don’t even have meet the pathetic demands of this program. As, at all.
Don’t take my word for it. Minnesota’s Blandin Foundation has long been a national model for finding broadband solutions that really work. This work is led by Bernadine Joselyn, someone I’ve worked with from time to time who has really thought about rural politics. As for the billions of dollars under Connect America Fund, she was quoted here:
- Those speeds were “such a waste of public money,” said Bernadine Joselyn, director of public policy for the Blandin Foundation, a Grand Rapids, Minnesota nonprofit focused on rural issues. ‘If you are going to invest in broadband, you want it to be future-proof, especially with public funds. I think it’s reasonable to expect this to benefit a community for decades.
Heitkamp’s time would be much better spent exposing DC policies that sent billions to AT&T and bankrupt companies like Frontier that failed to connect rural America. Instead, she is waging a nationwide campaign to stop Gigi’s nomination because Gigi dared to suggest that grants to rural America should actually benefit rural residents and businesses. Because Gigi also thinks we should balance rural investments with subsidies to cities, where millions more Americans are being ignored or underserved by cable monopolies and where little girls doing homework at taco bell in the city of Salinas, much like their peers in rural McDonald’s parking lots.
North Dakota once broke free from big monopolies
Here is the wild irony of Heitkamp crushing Gigi with this attack. Heitkcamp positions itself as the savior of rural America while selling it to the monopolies that refused to invest in it. And she does this knowing that her former constituents in North Dakota won’t be as affected as the rest of the country. because North Dakota is already wired. 77% of rural areas in the state can connect to the Internet through future-proof fiber networks, compared to only 20% of all rural Americans. North Dakota broke free from big monopolies that refused to invest outside of cities when local co-ops and independent telecom operators bought lines from these monopolies decades ago to better serve their subscribers.
The nomination of Tanking Gigi on these grounds sends a message that rural grants should continue to go to businesses that simply extract wealth from rural areas. Gigi wants to make sure we invest in networks that are responsible to rural communities rather than handing billions to companies that are better at astroturf marketing campaigns than connecting farms with fiber. I understand why telecom monopolies are often happy to fund disinformation campaigns to advance their interests. I don’t understand why so many people are so easily taken by them.
Gigi is deeply respected by people who oppose everything she does. I want to see Gigi at the FCC for the same reason her opponents do – because she’s not one to sell herself for a dollar. She’s the role model we need at the FCC.
Editor’s Note: This article was written by Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Network Initiative at the Institute for Local Self Reliance. Its job is to help communities ensure that the telecommunications networks on which they depend are accountable to the community. It was honored as one of the 2012 Top 25 in Public Sector Technology by Government Technology, which annually honors the nation’s top “Doers, Drivers, and Dreamers.” This piece was originally published on MuniNetworks.org April 26, 2022, and is reprinted with permission.
Broadband Breakfast welcomes comments from knowledgeable observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to [email protected] Opinions expressed in expert reviews do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.