Gigi Sohn warns against attacks on broadband freedom of choice Thumbnail Image

Gigi Sohn warns against attacks on broadband freedom of choice

Gigi Sohn is in the news again. She’s found a new energy and visibility as the executive director of the American Association for Public Broadband, which seeks to ensure that municipalities can participate in building their own broadband project.

In fact, just days ahead of a special live appearance on a Ready or Not? LIVE podcast with Scott Woods, she was warning Utah residents about attacks on broadband freedom of choice in an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune Sunday. 

In a brief interview, Sohn amplified on the op-ed. In it, she highlighted how the Utah Taxpayers Association had hired a group called Gather Utah to obtain signatures for a petition that would put a halt to Bountiful, Utah’s new partnership with UTOPIA Fiber in an open-access model.

UTOPIA Fiber operates an open access network upon which dozens of competitive ISPs offer their services to businesses and residents. It is the largest operating open access network in the United States and continues to grow. The network’s net revenues have begun to pay down the infrastructure debt that the cities incurred to build the network. 

Sohn’s warning is the first of its sort since her appointment in May as the new executive director of the American Association for Public Broadband, a nonprofit founded by state and local broadband officials to build a diverse membership of public broadband networks nationwide and advocate for municipal broadband at all government levels.

Sohn claimed that the UTA, which doesn’t publish a list of its due paying members or its board of directors, has “long been opposed to communities having the freedom to choose the best broadband internet access for their residents.” 

Furthermore, two huge cable and broadband companies, Comcast and CenturyLink were previously members of UTA and have been “vocally opposed to community-owned broadband for decades.” They are known for financially supporting UTA in exchange for pushing policies that help maintain their market dominance, Sohn said. 

Large ISPs are focused solely on return on investment, they aren’t interested in serving poor people, Sohn told Broadband Breakfast. Communities should have the freedom to choose the broadband that they want, she stated. 

She told this reporter that her primary aim as head of AAPB is to promote community broadband by giving communities the tools they need to adopt the model. Tools include an upcoming webinar series and community toolkits. Sohn said that she will also work to highlight successful community broadband projects across the U.S.

Some small, rural internet service providers are interested in the community broadband model, but big companies are not, she said. The community broadband model can be a great way to expand an ISPs business, she claimed, stating that she hopes large providers can see the opportunity to expand their markets. 

The notion that broadband services are a free market product, meaning that they are exchanged on a system of supply and demand with little to no government control, is nonsense, said Sohn, fighting against the argument that taxpayer dollars should not be used to compete against ISP’s private investments. Every provider has access to millions of dollars from the Affordable Connectivity Program, the Universal Service fund, Capital Projects Fund and has access to public rights of way, she said. 

The Affordable Connectivity Program

Sohn also spoke briefly about the Affordable Connectivity Program, which subsidizes high-speed internet subscription by $30 a month or $75 a month on tribal lands, is predicted to run out of funds as soon as the first quarter of 2024.

According to Sohn, lawmakers have discussed cutting ACP subsidies to extend the program longer. She vehemently opposed this proposal, claiming that doing so will destroy programs that people rely on to get access to the internet. 

Sohn pointed to Ting Internet, a small ISP that provides a $30 plan to ACP recipients – making it completely free to its subscribers – that provides a Gig symmetrical speed. This program could not be possible without the full capacity of the ACP program, said Sohn.

The idea solution is to fold the ACP into the lifeline program, which is funded by the universal service fund, said Sohn. The USF is a nearly $10 billion fund that relies on dwindling voice service revenues to fund several programs that support low-income broadband access in the U.S.

The FCC must fix the USF revenue stream and find a place for the ACP as a rebranded lifeline program, Sohn said. However, Sohn said she is “not optimistic” about this solution being passed by Congress and instead suggested that Congress add additional money to the program to support it for another two years.

Furthermore, Sohn pushed for community anchor institutions to have more opportunities under the law to “aggregate demand” for the ACP among the eligible residents in their area. “Successful broadband adoption programs come from the bottom up, not the top down,” she said in remarks at a Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband annual conference.

Community anchor institutions should be responsible to educate ACP eligible residents about the program and its benefits and provide digital literacy training to help residents be more confident about their digital skills, she said.

Background and confirmation battle

Sohn is well known for her work in broadband throughout her career. Most recently, she was nominated by President Joe Biden for Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, having served from 2013 to 2016 as a senior counselor then then-chairman Tom Wheeler. 

Since that time, she has been a senior fellow at the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society and a board member at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She was the co-founder and initial executive director of Public Knowledge.

After she failed to advance in the Senate as a commissioner at the FCC, Sohn withdrew her candidacy. “As a person who’s always been a public advocate, it was extremely frustrating to be muzzled, to not be able to talk about the important issues,” she said at the announcement of joining ACPB.

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