For Sake of Accurate Broadband Map, Gigi Sohn Urges Senators Not to Delay Her Vote as FCC Commissioner

Sohn added the Supreme Court decision in West Virginia could challenge net neutrality rules.

For Sake of Accurate Broadband Map, Gigi Sohn Urges Senators Not to Delay Her Vote as FCC Commissioner
Updated CAF map from USAC

WASHINGTON, February 14, 2023 – The first thing that she will do as the fifth commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission is to get involved in improving the agency’s map on which billions in federal broadband infrastructure funds are dependent, Gigi Sohn said during her third Senate committee hearing Tuesday.

But a delay in her vote in the chamber that confirms presidential nominations may also prove too late for the assistance she said she could provide before the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which relies on the map to deliver billions in federal dollars for broadband infrastructure, begins delivering the money to states.

That’s because the Commerce Department agency has targeted by June 30 the delivery of the $42.5 billion from its Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, which was created out of the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act.

“That June 30th date is a really, really critical date, and that’s why time is really of the essence to get me confirmed because if I don’t get confirmed at all, there’s not going to be a fifth person on the FCC in time to do anything about those maps,” Sohn told the commerce committee, elaborating that the FCC is doing the best it can with the current four-person makeup of the commission.

“Now I can’t fix it myself,” Sohn added, “but I have unbelievable relationships with the states, including many of the states of folks that sit on this dais and I would love to help improve that broadband map.”

Sohn, who was nominated for the FCC for a second time by President Joe Biden, noted that she worked hard to sell the infrastructure bill to the public interest community because of its bipartisan support it received and the amount of money involved.

Since the first draft of the FCC map was released in November, there have been over 20 states involved in over a million challenges to the data underlying it. Commission chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a February letter to senators concerned about accuracy that the challenges amounted to less than one percent of total number of locations identified, but added the agency has spilled “significant resources” since the first version to improve its accuracy.

Republican senators drill in on net neutrality

Near the top of the hearing, committee chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., accused opposing Republicans of using controversies surrounding Sohn – such as what they called her partisan retweets related to views on policing and race – as a “proxy fight” for their concern about the nominee’s position on net neutrality.

Republicans on the committee – who attacked Sohn throughout the over-two-and-a-half-hour hearing on alleged conflict of interest issues related to things including financial donations to senators on the committee – have been concerned about Sohn’s clear support for the principle, which dictates that internet traffic should not be manipulated, slowed or sped up by the provider under any circumstances. The FCC under the leadership of Ajit Pai in 2017 reversed the Barack Obama era net neutrality rules established in 2015.

Republican senators on the committee wanted to know whether Sohn believes it should be Congress’s call to provide the authority to the FCC to make net neutrality rules or if the agency can go it alone.

While Sohn said she believes the FCC has the authority to unilaterally imposed such rules, she said she is in favor of deferring to Congress to give the commission explicit authority.

“I would love for Congress to give the FCC proper authority and specific authority to adopt net neutrality rules,” Sohn said.

“Congress has had two decades now to decide that authority and it’s refused to do so,” she added. “However, I still believe Congress should do so and I beg Congress to do so, but until then, until it does so, the agency has got to have authority.” Others have agreed that the FCC already has unilateral authority to reinstitute those rules.

This time, however, the Republicans have promised to increase oversight of the agency, empowered by a West Virginia v. EPA decision of the Supreme Court that determined administrative bodies must derive authority explicitly from Congress on major questions, including of economic- and policy-related matters.

“I think the FCC can and has the authority to act,” Sohn said in response to a question about whether she thinks the FCC can act on net neutrality unilaterally in light of the Supreme Court decision. “It doesn’t mean it won’t be challenged and the West Virginia case is going to be a challenge for net neutrality rules.”

Before the midterm elections, legislation was introduced that would have codified net neutrality in the law. Democratic senators Doris Matsui, Ca., Edward Markey, Mass., and Ron Wyden, Ore., introduced the Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act. Meanwhile, some states, including California, have already instituted net neutrality rules.

The FCC, for perspective, has previously deferred to Congress on a separate issue, asking the lawmaking body to determine the administrative body’s authority over expanding the funding base of the Universal Service Fund, which includes programs that provide basic telecommunications services to rural and remote areas.

Sohn also showed support to requests, currently being raised to the FCC, for the commission to expand the USF’s E-Rate program to cybersecurity tools. The E-Rate program helps schools and libraries obtain affordable internet.

“I think that’s something that the FCC should definitely look at,” Sohn said, noting the commission would need to do a proceeding on it. “I’ve hear about this in Arizona and other states and I think this is something where E-Rate funding — if we’re talking about making sure that K through 12 students have the best networks, the most secure networks — it seems to me, logical…to extend E-Rate funding to cybersecurity tools.”

The co-founder of internet advocacy group Public Knowledge was pushed through the same committee a year ago next month with a party-line vote, but never got a vote on the Senate floor, which is again in Democratic hands after the midterms.

“The Commerce Committee and then the full Senate should advance this nomination without further delays, which only benefit those big companies orchestrating this impasse,” said advocacy group Free Press in a statement. “If the Senate genuinely wants to improve the lives of internet users, cellphone customers, TV watchers and radio listeners — aka, everyone — it can start by confirming this excellent public servant to the FCC immediately.”

If voted in, she would represent the party tie-breaking vote on a commission that consists of two Democrats and two Republicans.

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