Federal Communications Commission (FCC) nominee Gigi Sohn is a big advocate of taxpayer-funded government-owned internet networks (GONs), despite scant evidence of their benefit. In fact, there is plenty of data showing they’re taxpayer boondoggles.
The Biden administration recently tapped Sohn as a nominee for the fifth seat on the FCC, a move that Congress would need to approve. Even though there’s a Democratic majority on Capitol Hill, Sohn’s confirmation is not assured.
If confirmed, Sohn will likely form a voting block with her fellow Democrats, Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel and Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, to push the agenda of the left when it comes to communications. That means increased regulations on providers, such as the reimplementation of Title II regulations, and the push for more government spending on GONs.
In the age of COVID-19, Democrats have strongly advocated for state and local governments to get involved in the internet business. President Joe Biden’s agenda calls for the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) “to support cities and towns that want to build municipally-owned broadband networks.” This means taxpayers will pay for these systems.
In addition, a Democratic task force last summer created a list of recommendations that includes taking “action to prevent states from blocking municipalities and rural co-ops from building publicly-owned broadband networks, and increase federal support for municipal broadband.”
Sohn, FCC counsel under former Democratic chairman Tom Wheeler and architect of the initial Title II regulations, would be in lockstep with that agenda. She testified to the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Communications in support of the Democrats’ plan to supersede state laws.
"These laws, passed at the urging of the largest incumbent broadband providers, are not only flatly anticompetitive, they prohibit deployment in rural communities that the incumbents have no intention of ever serving," she said. "Most destructively, these laws directly raise the price of broadband for the most vulnerable Americans."
The Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) previously reported on how the left has pushed a misleading narrative about broadband pricing that doesn’t take into account speeds and population density.
Ultimately, Democrats softened on their goal of lifting state prohibitions on GONs as the infrastructure bill made its way through the Senate. But, the legislation still allows the broadband funding portion to be used to build government networks, a plan that Sohn told the Wall Street Journal she likes.
"It's an absolute sea change, a significant increase in the involvement of the federal and state government in the broadband market ... Is it everything I would have wanted? No. But it's a major step forward and can be supplemented with action from the FCC and other agencies,” she said.
Critics of more government funding for broadband point to billions of taxpayer dollars already appropriated for it, which includes more than $127 billion through various sources and an additional $788 billion in COVID-19 relief, some of which can be used for high-speed internet. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill currently being debated on Capitol Hill, has another $65 billion in broadband funding.
As TPA has reported extensively, taxpayer-funded internet projects often fail for various reasons, including low take rates, mismanagement and a lack of institutional knowledge about running broadband networks.
TPA highlighted many of those failures in its 2020 report “GON with the Wind: The Failed Promise of Government Owned Networks Across America.” More follies are noted on TPA’s “Broadband Boondoggles.”
Instead of pushing for more government internet, Sohn and the rest of the FCC should instead focus on removing the red tape that harms providers’ efforts to build broadband infrastructure in unserved areas.
Johnny Kampis is a senior fellow and investigative reporter for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.