Senate may soon vote on Gigi Sohn nomination to FCC

The Federal Communications Commission met for the first time in person yesterday since the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic. It was also the first meeting held at the FCC’s new headquarters at 45 L Street NE, in Washington, DC.

A livestream of the meeting highlighted the fact that the FCC is currently thinly staffed with only four commissioners evenly divided between Democrats and Republications: FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel (D); and commissioners Geoffrey Starks (D), Brendan Carr (R) and Nathan Simington (R).

President Biden nominated Rosenworcel as chair in October 2021, and at the same time he also nominated telecom lawyer Gigi Sohn to serve as a Democratic member of the FCC.

While Rosenworcel’s confirmation went quite smoothly in December, Sohn’s nomination has run into partisan problems. Senators failed to advance her nomination in December. But President Biden re-nominated her in January.

Republican senators have criticized Sohn for a variety of reasons. Their main criticism is that she’s been a proponent of net neutrality. She served as an aide to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who established the FCC’s 2015 net neutrality rules, which were later overturned by the Ajit Pai-led FCC.

In addition Republican Senators have opposed Sohn for past tweets in which she criticized FOX News. And they’ve complained about her work with Locast, a company that attempted to stream local broadcast channels under the auspices of being a non-profit corporation. Ultimately, Locast shut down after a court determined it was streaming copyrighted content without permission.

Conservatives also don’t like that Sohn led the progressive consumer group Public Knowledge for more than a decade.

Sohn was scheduled for a February committee vote, but when New Mexico Senator Ben Ray Luján couldn’t attend because of health reasons, Democrats pulled Sohn’s vote from the schedule because they weren’t sure they had enough votes.

Since then, the Senate Commerce Committee voted to advance the nomination of Sohn, which now goes to the Senate. “We expect her to be approved, albeit by a slim margin,” wrote New Street Research policy analyst Blair Levin. But he said the situation in Ukraine and the Supreme Court nomination are both requiring Senate time, and those will be higher priorities for the Senate and the White House.

March FCC meeting

Perhaps because the current FCC is evenly divided, it doesn’t have the most exciting items on its monthy meeting agendas.

At its March meeting, held yesterday, the FCC approved a proposal that would seek comments on pole replacement costs between utilities and attachers. This is a topic near and dear to the hearts of broadband providers who want a more streamlined process for attaching their equipment to utility poles.

The Commission also unanimously voted to revoke the rights of two more Chinese telecom companies to operate in the U.S. — Pacific Networks and Comnet. This follows previous FCC votes to revoke China Mobile’s 214 authorization in 2019, and to revoke China Unicom’s and China Telecom’s authorizations in 2021.

In the vote against Pacific Networks and Comnet the FCC cited similar reasons: the companies are U.S. subsidiaries of a Chinese parent and subject to influence and control by the Chinese government. The FCC said the national security environment with respect to China has changed since it authorized Chinese telecom companies to operate in the U.S.

Commissioner Starks said, “Pacific Networks and Comnet have failed to provide accurate information to congress and the commission. They clearly demonstrate they cannot be trusted to provide telecoms service in the United States, and so I support today’s action. It was almost three years ago that we acted against a Chinese carrier seeking to operate in the United States. Today’s decision revokes the 214 authority for the last of the Chinese companies identified by Team Telecom.”

Digital discrimination

The commissioners also voted to commence a proceeding to prevent digital discrimination and ensure that all Americans benefit from equal access to broadband internet access. The FCC must ensure there is no discrimination as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Although all four commissioners voted to approve this item, Commissioner Simington made some interesting comments.

While he said, “I support the item as a necessary step toward equity and welcome the support of fulfilling congress’ mandate.” He also said, “Laws reach into the future and have potentially unintended impacts.”

Then, he proceeded to talk about freedom of speech and suppression of speech.

“Outside of the United States, it’s not unusual for laws to be passed restricting dissent that may be labeled, sometimes with very good reason. Of course, in the United States the First Amendment prevents this…. However, I suspect that broadband providers, have, and will come under similar pressures to terminate and discriminate against customers who post or provide controversial content through their broadband connections. I fear that just like other companies, they will find pressure from politicians and political activists increasingly difficult to resist. It’s not necessarily so difficult to imagine unpopular customers being fired by their obvious carriers.”

Simington seemed to be saying that even though the Infrastructure and Jobs Act directs the FCC to make sure that no one is deprived of broadband based on race, religion, income level or color, he wants to make sure that no one is deprived of broadband based on political views.