Last March, popular telecom and media reformer Gigi Sohn’s appointment to the FCC fell apart, after telecom and media giants (with the GOP’s help) waged a year long lobbying and propaganda campaign falsely framing her as a radical (The Verge has a good new interview with Sohn on what happened, in case you missed it).
The campaign was highly illustrative of not just the level of corruption in Congress and the regulatory nominee confirmation process, but how terrified companies like Comcast, AT&T, and News Corporation are of regulators who actually pursue policies of interest to the public (like say lower broadband prices, net neutrality, privacy protections, or media consolidation limits).
Sohn has since shifted focus to an arena I’d argue has more of a real-world impact than the majority of what the FCC is doing: community owned and operated broadband networks. Sohn’s now the head of an organization dubbed the American Association for Public Broadband, which advocates for locally-owned and operated alternatives to the lumbering, regional telecom monopolies we long ago normalized.
Frustrated by decades of monopoly dysfunction, towns and cities all over the country have decided to build their own networks, whether it’s municipal, built on the back of city-owned power utilities, or via cooperatives. There’s a lot of very cool stuff happening in this space that was supercharged by the peak COVID frustration with unreliable broadband and home schooling.
After being railroaded by telecom monopolies, Sohn’s now working to ensure that billions in historic new broadband subsidies (made possible by COVID relief and the infrastructure bill) will be spent on direct competitive challenges to their power. Organizations custom built by locals, which see broadband as a utility, and are simply interested in connecting everyone and breaking even:
These municipal network models would be essential in closing the digital divide because they are motivated by different incentives than private companies to “go to places that incumbent won’t,” Sohn argued.
“They are not interested in return on investment,” she added. “They are interested in making sure everybody is connected.”
Politicians and regulators talk a lot about how they want to “bridge the digital divide.” But most of them lack the political courage to correctly identify why that divide still exists in 2023: regional telecom monopolies, protected by corrupt state and federal politicians, that have worked tirelessly over thirty years to consolidate power, crush all meaningful competition, and jack up the cost of service.
The result is obvious everywhere you look: half-completed networks, high prices, comically terrible customer service, slow speeds, plenty of fraud, and massive gaps in the kind of low income, minority, and rural markets Wall Street doesn’t have the patience or interest to serve.
Enter community broadband networks; smaller, locally owned and operated efforts focused on treating broadband like an essential utility. Data keeps showing these networks offer cheaper, better service than regional monopolies, and, given they’re run by locals, they’re more accountable to locals (see our recent Copia report). Sohn’s goal: to double the number of such networks within the next five years.
The parallels to America’s electrification efforts 100 years ago are everywhere. Especially as it relates to cooperatives expanding broadband to areas lazy and greedy incumbents won’t. With federal regulators and lawmakers largely corrupted (and their power increasingly being curtailed by a rightward lurching Supreme Court), the real fight in broadband access has shifted to the local level, where armies of pissed off residents are challenging monopoly power with creative new deployments, block by block.
As a reformer Sohn could have done a lot of good work at the FCC. But I’d argue that the grass roots, local, bipartisan efforts to build better, faster, and cheaper community-owned broadband networks is where all the real action currently is anyway. And there’s no greater revenge to be taken upon monopolies like AT&T and Comcast than driving popular competition right into their backyards.