Attacks on Gigi Sohn Reinforce Her Fitness for the FCC

Gigi Sohn is still up for confirmation by the Senate to complete the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) - an independent agency in the executive branch of the federal government 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 party of the President in power having 3 seats. 

She was the obvious choice in December of 2020, when it was clear that Joe Biden would take office. With decades of history in telecom and media-related policy as well as a recent stint as Counselor to Tom Wheeler when he was Chair of the FCC, she would be among the most-qualified people to serve on it since I began working in telecom in 2007. And by among, I mean at the top.

I’ve known Gigi for many years and respected her from the first time I saw her in action. She isn’t a political agent trying to figure out the best path to the top. She has strong beliefs, and she’ll tell you what they are in a wonderful Long Island blur of passion. She respects other beliefs and ideas but she isn’t going to pretend she agrees with you when she doesn’t. 

Maybe my word isn’t that persuasive, because I tend to agree with Sohn on many issues. But a lot of people with far more credibility among conservatives have spoken up on Gigi. So I hadn’t written anything about this because I assumed it would take time but Gigi would get confirmed. Plus, I focus my work outside DC and there is a lot going on that is keeping us busy. 

Gigi was always under fire by the likes of the Wall Street Journal Opinion page, which has made baseless claims about her not being committed to free speech, using tortured logic around denying mergers. If I went off every time that bunch embarrassed the good work of their reporters, I wouldn’t do anything else. 

But then some allies forwarded me claims coming from former North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp - someone I have listened to being interviewed on podcasts and generally thought well of because she sounds practical. But the attacks from Heitkamp on Gigi are so off-base that I had to respond because I’m often working with people in rural communities for whom this issue is not theoretical. They have suffered for more than a decade of federal and state mismanagement of broadband expansion programs. Their towns are struggling as hospitals close and jobs move away to areas with better access. Their children have fewer educational opportunities. They face greater risk from communications failures in natural disasters. Getting this right is important. 

Heitkamp makes multiple claims that Gigi’s confirmation would be bad for rural America based on misreading quotes or taking them out of context to pretend that Gigi is not concerned with rural broadband challenges. Like this:

During an April 2021 interview with Bloomberg Government, saying ‘What [have we gotten] for [the federal government’s existing] $50 billion investment? Not much.’

Is this a sign that Gigi thinks we shouldn’t spend money in rural America?  That is what Heitkamp wants you to believe. But the very next passage in that article says this:

'What do we get for a $50 billion investment? Not much,' she said in an interview. 'What we don’t want is to be in the position we are today: where we built networks that were for then, and not for now, and not for the future.'

The article is about 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 question - we should be making sure that investments in rural America will permanently solve the problem.

Heitkamp was Senator from 2013-2019, a time when the federal government gave multiple billions of dollars to the biggest telecom monopolies - like AT&T. They didn’t even meet the pathetic requirements of that program. Like, at all

Don’t just take my word for it. Minnesota’s Blandin Foundation has long been a national model for seeking broadband solutions that really work. That work is run by Bernadine Joselyn, someone I have worked with off and on and who has put real thought into rural policy. Regarding the billions of dollars under Connect America Fund, she was quoted here:

Those speeds were 'such a waste of public dollars,' said Bernadine Joselyn, public policy director for the Blandin Foundation, a Grand Rapids, Minnesota, nonprofit focused on rural issues. 'If you're going to make an investment in broadband, you want it to be future proof, especially with public funds. I think it’s reasonable to expect it would benefit a community for decades.'

Heitkamp’s time would be far better used exposing the policies in DC that sent billions to AT&T and bankrupt companies like Frontier that failed to connect rural America.  Instead, she is running a national campaign to tank Gigi’s nomination because Gigi dared to suggest that subsidies to rural America should actually benefit rural residents and businesses. Because Gigi also believes that we should balance rural investment with subsidies to cities, where millions more Americans are ignored or poorly served by cable monopolies and where little girls do their homework at Taco Bell in the city of Salinas just like their peers in rural McDonald’s parking lots. 

Here is the savage irony of Heitkamp running down Gigi with this attack. Heitkcamp is positioning herself as the savior of rural America while selling it out to the monopolies that have refused to invest in it. And she does it while knowing that her former constituents in North Dakota won’t be as harmed as the rest of the country because North Dakota is already wired. 77 percent of the rural areas in the state can connect to the Internet via future-proof, fiber networks, compared to just 20 percent of rural Americans as a whole. North Dakota broke free of the big monopolies that refused to invest outside of the cities, when local cooperatives and independent telcos bought the lines from those monopolies decades ago to better serve their subscribers. 

Tanking Gigi’s nomination on these grounds sends a message that rural subsidies should continue going to those companies that simply extract wealth from rural areas. Gigi stands to make sure we invest in networks that are accountable to rural communities rather than handing billions to companies that are better at astroturf marketing campaigns than connecting farms with fiber. I understand why the telecom monopolies are frequently happy to bankroll misinformation campaigns to further their interests. I’m confused why so many people are so easily taken by them. 

Gigi is deeply respected by the people who oppose damn near everything she does. I want to see Gigi on the FCC for the same reason her opponents do - because she is not the type to sell out for a buck. She is the model for who we need on the FCC.