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Gaps in broadband access is backdrop to Sohn’s FCC nomination fight 

McConnell says Sohn is no more qualified than in 2022 or 2021

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., conducts a news conference in the Capitol after the Senate luncheons on Jan. 24.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., conducts a news conference in the Capitol after the Senate luncheons on Jan. 24. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In parts of Oklahoma’s 3rd District, more than half of the state’s rural residents don’t have access to a broadband connection, House Science Chairman Frank D. Lucas, who represents the district in Congress, said in a recent interview. 

Oklahoma is not alone. 

Republican Rep. Bob Latta, who represents Ohio’s 5th District, echoed that view at a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology hearing this month. “It’s clear traveling in my district [that] too many Americans still lack access to the internet,” he said.

Ashley Bachmann, owner of the Cheetah B’s restaurant in Petersburg, W.Va., told lawmakers on the House Ways and Means Committee this month that at times she has to collect customers’ credit card details for use later, when she regains her internet connection. She only then learns if the payment will go through. 

“It affects our business constantly,” she said. 

Even as House Republicans call for more internet access in rural areas, their counterparts in the Senate are holding up confirmation of a Federal Communications Commission nominee that some say is needed to close the gap in connectivity. Senate Republicans last week again indicated opposition to Gigi Sohn for a seat on the FCC, a confirmation that would give the agency its fifth commissioner and give the Democrats a 3-2 majority.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the floor that Sohn “is no more qualified to be installed on the FCC than she was back in 2021 or 2022.” Sohn didn’t receive a floor vote in the last Congress after the Senate Commerce Committee deadlocked on her confirmation. Biden has resubmitted her nomination.

Democrats say the FCC needs all five members to complete the broadband maps that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration will use to allocate about $42.5 billion. The money is part of $65 billion that Congress appropriated in a 2021 law to address the internet access gap and expand high-speed broadband. 

The NTIA said it plans to announce allocations on June 30, using the most up-to-date version of the FCC maps. 

The FCC needs to “craft rules preventing digital discrimination on broadband access,” Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., chair of the Senate Commerce Communications, Media and Broadband Subcommittee, said at the Senate Commerce hearing with Sohn last week.

“Multiple reports have found that ISPs, big and small, provided false data to the FCC’s maps in an anti-competitive effort to block rival companies from getting a share of the $42.5 billion this committee provided for broadband,” Luján said, referring to internet service providers. 

Economic inequality

Tens of millions of Americans lack broadband access, a gap that the 2021 law was meant to fill at least in part.

The House Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth, led in the last Congress by Reps. Jim Himes, D-Conn., and Bryan Steil, R-Wis., issued a bipartisan report in December noting that as many as 42 million U.S. households, including 27 percent of Americans in rural areas, don’t have access to broadband internet.

The absence of high-speed internet connections has created pockets of economic inequality affecting education, agriculture, health care services, small business startups and other areas, according to lawmakers and experts. 

Chavonda Jacobs-Young, the undersecretary for research, education and economics at the Agriculture Department, told members of the Senate Agriculture Committee in December that agriculture is now a high-tech business and that farmers need internet access.

“When you talk to most Americans, they have no idea how high-tech agriculture is,” Jacobs-Young said. Collecting and storing precise data on crops and high-performance computing “are only possible if you have broadband access.”

Sohn, a progressive broadband policy advocate, said she would be able to work with states to build a more accurate map before the June 30 deadline. 

“Without an accurate broadband map, the money that is going to be spent by the Commerce Department is not going to go to the right places,” Sohn said. 

But Senate Republicans say that she is too radical and accuse her of ethical lapses related to her past work on the board of a company that attempted to operate a nonprofit streaming service. The Democrats’ gain of a Senate seat in the current Congress could improve her chances of confirmation.

Nicol Turner Lee, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, said the FCC faces constraints in figuring how best to allocate the money and assess its impact without a full five-person commission.

“The broadband maps are going to matter in the investment of the money and in the evaluation of the investment,” Turner Lee said. “Without having a full slate of FCC commissioners … and having commissioners that can be supportive of the Biden agenda makes it difficult.” 

Deployment of broadband infrastructure has been largely led by private capital investment, and companies constantly assess whether the investment will yield returns before putting money down, Turner Lee said. 

The federal funding to expand broadband access attempts to create a different model through public-private partnerships, so that the “traditional return-on-investment model doesn’t pass over unserved and underserved communities,” Turner Lee said. 

“It’s possible that the priorities of closing the digital divide once again get lost,” said Turner Lee, referring to Republicans’ opposition to Sohn.

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