Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 192

This is Episode 192 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Chris speaks about national public policy with Gigi Sohn, a co-founder of Public Knowledge and current Counselor to Chairman Wheeler of the Federal Communications Commission. Listen to this episode here. 

Gigi Sohn: My boss, chairman Tom Wheeler, has a mantra, and that is, "Competition, competition, competition."

Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 192 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. From the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Our podcast usually focus on what's happening in local communities, but today we widen the lens to examine how things are changing at the federal level. The current Federal Communications Commission has made it known that they intend to do whatever they can to speed up ubiquitous, high quality internet access across the US. This week, we were able to touch base with Gigi Sohn, counselor to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Chris and Gigi run through some of the policies the FCC are implementing to improve connectivity for residents, businesses, and organizations across the country. They also discuss some of the activity you may not know about yet, but is important to expanding the benefits of competition for services. At the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we have conversations with people like Gigi to share information we know matters to you, and we do it with no advertising. Please take a moment to donate at ilsr.org or muninetworks.org to help us continue to bring you accurate, interesting, quality information. Any amount helps. Now, here are Chris and Gigi Sohn, counselor to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another addition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell, and today I'm speaking with Gigi Sohn, counselor to Chairman Wheeler of the Federal Communications Commission. Welcome to the show.

Gigi Sohn: It's great to be here, Chris.

Chris Mitchell: Thank you for coming on, Gigi. I know it's incredibly busy at the council. I think you guys have had a string of remarkable achievements and projects. I wanted to start by asking you a little bit about municipal fiber, and I'm hoping you can tell me a little bit about why municipal fiber is important for the approach you're taking at the commission.

Gigi Sohn: Sure, well look. My boss, chairman Tom Wheeler, has a mantra that he talks about, and it's really been his guiding light throughout his two and almost a half year term, and that is, "Competition, competition, competition." He has said publicly many times that there is not enough competition for the kind of broadband access that most Americans need. We actually redefined what the definition is for broadband. It was four down and one up, and now we've changed it to 25 megabits per second down and three up. He has said publicly and the numbers show that the vast majority of Americans either have no choice or one choice at that 25/3 speed. That that 25/3 speed is what Americans need to use the multiple devices they have, to do homework, to fill out job applications out online, to watch video. municipal fiber, obviously, is critical to helping push competition. Not everywhere, but in many, many places, having municipal fiber really pushes the incumbent to up their game. Better speeds, lower prices, a better service. That competition, again, is really critical to making sure that everybody has affordable access to broadband.

Chris Mitchell: It's one year since the date of that incredible decision that the chairman led, along with commissioners Rosenworcel and Clyburn, that remove barriers in North Carolina and Tennessee. We have oral arguments now scheduled for March. Later on this month, in fact. I'm curious, has anything changed in the last year? Have you had any more compelling stories? Has anything struck you about the municipal fiber landscape since that decision really woke people up to it?

Gigi Sohn: I think what has really struck me, and I would say my boss as well, is how that decision started the conversation, in many different towns and cities throughout the country, about whether this should be an option for them. Now, I will not say that it was our decision alone. It was advocates like you in next century cities, and CLIC, that's the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, who are also sort of showing folks that building community broadband networks is possible, desirable, they're presenting best practices. I would say that our decision certainly started to kick off the conversation in hundreds of towns and cities around the country, as to whether this is something that folks could do themselves. Whether they could determine what their broadband future should be. I think that's what's been really, really exciting for me, to see all the feasibility studies and the construction starting, and just people talking about this being feasible. Whereas, I don't think that kind of conversation was happening in as many places prior to our decision. I actually have said this to my boss, I said, "Look, we're going to have a tough battle in court. I think we'll prevail, but it's tough, and our legal theory is a new legal theory." But I said to him, "Look, we want to win in court, but even if we don't, what's important here is you've shown a light, a national spotlight, on a critically important issue. You will get momentum going." I think like what you saw in Colorado, with the referendum. What was it, like 30 or 40 different cities?

Chris Mitchell: Almost 50, yeah.

Gigi Sohn: Almost 50 cities, okay, basically saying, "We want this," and essentially deciding to overrule the restrictive law that was passed there a number of years ago. I'd like to think that our decision helped to embolden those cities to do that.

Chris Mitchell: You've described two aspects, I think, of the competitive agenda that the FCC has pursued, one of those is defining broadband in a meaningful way that will actually matter to people, so we can get a real sense of how much choice their is. Another is encouraging municipal fiber. What are other aspects of this approach that you haven't mentioned yet?

Gigi Sohn: Obviously our open internet decision, which was decided the same day as the municipal broadband agenda, is also a pro-competitive decision as well, to ensure that the internet is open and that innovation can flourish, which then leads to more investment of broadband. It basically makes broadband a good investment, and an industry that others might want to come in. I think that has a lot to do with our open internet agenda. We're looking at how to promote over the top services. As you know, we denied the Comcast Time Warner Cable merger, so we were able to preserve what competition there is in the ISP space. We put some serious conditions on the AT&T DIRECTV merger, including requiring AT&T to build out to 12.5 million more homes. We basically said, "If you want this merger, you must compete. You must lay fiber. You must compete with cable." We've used that transaction, and obviously denying the Comcast transaction, to both preserve and promote more competition. We use our universal service funds, particularly our connect America fund, which builds out in rural areas, also to get new builds in fiber and otherwise in rural areas. We're doing this in a lot of different ways, and will continue to do so. Another way we're promoting competition, again, it's not necessarily ISP competition, but ISP the competition generally is we're opening up the set top box. For 20 plus years, most people rent this kind of clunky set-top box from their cable operator. We're doing something, a campaign we called Unlock the Box, where we are proposing to require cable operators to allow new entrance into cable, into the cable set-top box space. It could be a box, it could be a device like a Chromecast, it could even be software. By opening up the last network- the wireless network is open, the telephone network is open, the internet network of networks is open, but the cable network is still closed. By opening up that network and allowing the attachment of non-harmful devices or software, we believe that is going to lead to great competition and video.

Chris Mitchell: I think you've also done some interesting things around unlicensed spectrum. I'd just be curious if you could describe those briefly.

Gigi Sohn: Our big initiative in that regard is our big broadcast incentive auction. Thank you for reminding me about the spectrum, because it's so incredibly important. Opening up more spectrum to sharing, opening up higher bands of spectrum to both licensed and un, but mostly unlicensed uses. Again, in this incentive auction where we will be, where basic broadcasters will be selling their spectrum back and then we will be re-auctioning the spectrum to wireless companies. Number one, in the reselling of the spectrum, we have set rules that will allow the smaller competitors to buy more spectrum, will at least get a jump on buying more spectrum number one. Number two, we sent rules that would preserve larger swaths of unlicensed spaces for unlicensed use. Our spectrum policy has been a huge part of how we're promoting competition. We don't believe that wireless broadband is yet a substitute for a wire line. It may never be, or who knows? The chairman was in Barcelona last week, where all the talk was about the new generation of wireless technology called 5G, which people probably won't see at least until 2020. We are opening up as much spectrum as possible A) for sharing, including with unlicensed uses, and just plain old bases for nothing but unlicensed.

Chris Mitchell: A number of people- you have a long history as a consumer advocate and working for consumer protections. Some people have come to me and said, "It's foolish to encourage municipal fiber, it's foolish to do this or that, we should just recognize that this is a natural monopoly and we should treat it as such."

Gigi Sohn: Yeah, I guess the chairman doesn't really agree with that per se. He's seen the benefits of when competitors come in, whether they're community broadband or not. When fiber comes into a community, all the sudden the incumbents are providing 2 Gigabits service, and 10 Gig service. He's seen what can happen when you allow access to pole attachments, when you lift up regulatory barriers. For example, to building poles for wireless and cellular technologies. He's not ready to give up on the notion of competition yet. Is there more work to be done? Absolutely, but we think we've taken some really good steps through our spectrum policy, through our transaction policy, and through our policies encouraging community broadband to get that competition started. May take a little while, but I think we're unlikely to get back to a time where you had 10 or 13 different ISPs serving a community. We certainly think that the situation now is unacceptable. We're going to do everything in our power to try to get more folks out there competing for broadband internet access.

Chris Mitchell: My last question is a little bit separate. It's: what are people not noticing? I know that the FCCs been taking action on disability to make sure that really everyone can access the internet even if they're visually impaired, or other things. That springs to mind- I'm curious if there's other things that you've been doing that people aren't noticing that you think is really important.

Gigi Sohn: Yeah, I gave a speech about this in September in Rhode Island. We are consumer protection agency. People don't think of us that way, but we have a brand new complaint system. We've always had a complaint system, but it was largely like you'd call our 1-800 number. We've got this great online complaint system where people could file complaints, and those complaints go to ISPs, broadcasters, whatever you're complaining about. We have a very, very active enforcement bureau, which is to the dismay of a lot in industry. They've gone after things like WiFi blocking and slamming and cramming, which is fraudulent billing issues, and privacy violations. We are all about protecting the consumer. We will soon launch a rule making on privacy protections in the broadband world, and that stems from our open internet proceeding. I think people don't necessarily think of us that way. They think of us as the net neutrality agency, or the cable and broadcast regulatory agency, but we have a huge component of this agency that is just dedicated to protecting consumers from ordinary pocketbook and privacy issues that effect them every single day. That's the one thing that I've been trying to do, is sort of elevate us as a consumer protection agency, frankly on par with the FCC or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The people know that we're the primary agency for regulating robo-calls under the telephone consumer protection act. That's actually so much work because a lot of companies are trying to fritter away at the law that only prohibits robo-calls with consent. I think people don't necessarily recognize us as a consumer protection agency, and I'd like to change that.

Chris Mitchell: Great, well thank you so much for your time today.

Gigi Sohn: My pleasure, Chris. Take care.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris and Gigi Sohn, counselor to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Thanks for taking time to talk to us, Gigi. Send us your ideas for the show. Email us at podcast@muninetworks.org. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter, the handle is @muninetworks.org. Thank you to Kathleen Martin for the song Player Versus Player, licensed through creative commons. Thank you for listening to episode 192 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.

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