FCC nominee Gigi Sohn spells out why she remains Biden’s pick

Before FCC nominee Gigi Sohn’s third Senate confirmation hearing devolved along party lines, she explained why she’s still President Biden’s nominee for the fifth seat on the FCC. After all, it’s probably a question on a lot of minds these days.

Some of it might boil down to pure grit, but Sohn didn’t exactly say that. Instead, she outlined four reasons, beginning with her commitment to the FCC’s mission and her desire that everyone –  regardless of income, race, gender, sexual orientation or where they live – has access to communications networks.

“I believe it is critical for at least one member of the FCC to be a consumer advocate who has spent a career not beholden to any interest but that of the public,” she said as reason No. 2.

Third, she’s already established experience at the FCC, having served on the staff of former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. She’s familiar with how the FCC operates and “extremely well qualified,” with a deep knowledge of the issues before the agency, she said.

Lastly, “I believe deeply that regulated entities should not choose their regulator,” she said. “Unfortunately, that is the exact intent of the past 15 months of false and misleading attacks on my record and my character. My industry opponents have hidden behind dark money groups and surrogates because they fear a pragmatic, pro-competition, pro-consumer policymaker who will support policies that will bring more, and lower-priced broadband and new voices to your constituents.”

Accompanied at the hearing with her wife and daughter, Sohn is the first openly LGBTQ person to be nominated to the FCC. In a recent op-ed for Fast Company, her supporters called some of the attacks on her “homophobic nonsense.”  

Sohn’s supporters also released a list of more than 400 organizations, companies and trade associations that are in favor of her nomination, including conservatives. Chad Rupe, a former Rural Utilities Service (RUS) administrator under the Trump administration and current general manager at Ponderosa Communications, introduced Sohn at the hearing and registered his strong support for her.

A lot of the questions posed to Sohn during the hearing were around her position on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) – Fox News and other conservative news outlets made hay out of that – and her desire to overturn the Trump administration’s decisions around net neutrality.

At one point, Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, (D-Washington), noted the attacks against Sohn and said “this is a proxy fight for net neutrality.” Cantwell said she thinks Congress is the best place to deal with that issue, as whatever the FCC does, it probably will end up in legal dispute.

Cantwell went onto to suggest that it’s about more than net neutrality. The people behind the attacks on Sohn are probably fearful that if it becomes more affordable to deploy broadband anywhere and everywhere, that would eat into their companies’ profits.

“I think there's probably billions of dollars at stake here and that is why the vitriol is coming at you,” Cantwell said.

Support for rural carriers – and no ‘willy-nilly’ decisions

Asked about reimbursing rural wireless carriers for ripping out and replacing Huawei and other Chinese gear from their networks, Sohn said she recently met with members of the Rural Wireless Association about their invoices not getting paid and her desire to “absolutely” work with them on those issues.

Some of the questions revolved around free speech and censorship, with some of the conversation veering away from what seems to be the FCC’s immediate purview, including apparent Tweets about former President Trump.  

Sohn also noted the “latest K Street rumor” that the White House wants to make her the chairperson of the FCC, replacing Jessica Rosenworcel, and “that’s false.” Her point: If appointed to the commission, she is required to follow the law and established processes. “You can’t just willy-nilly make a decision based on what your predilections are,” she said, noting that three votes are required and FCC decisions are subject to court challenges.

Eyes on the maps

The FCC has been, for two years under the Biden administration, running with two Democrats and two Republicans, resulting in the agency taking on few, if any, controversial topics. On the flip side, nominations by former President Trump flew through their approval processes. The majority of the FCC historically reflects the party in the White House.

While this marked Sohn’s third hearing on her nomination to the FCC and it would seem her time is running out during the Biden administration to be on the panel, she emphasized the desire to get approved before June 30.

When it comes to rural access to high-speed internet, it’s imperative that the coverage maps be as accurate as possible and Sohn promised to work her “tail off” to get that done if she’s confirmed to the FCC. That’s something that needs to be done before the NTIA allocates government funds on June 30.  

“To me, there’s nothing more important right now than getting that money spent wisely and getting those maps right,” she said.

Cantwell closed the hearing by saying that senators will have until the close of business Friday, February 17, to submit questions for the record.