Biden FCC Nominee at Center of Debate About Broadband Equity
- Digital discrimination rulemaking on the line, advocates say
- Hispanic groups call for representation in fifth official
Bloomberg Government subscribers get the stories like this first. Act now and gain unlimited access to everything you need to know. Learn more.
President Joe Biden’s embattled nominee for the Federal Communications Commission is defending her work to serve marginalized communities in the face of outside groups’ concerns about delays.
The agency in charge of regulating the country’s communications systems is operating without a Democratic majority since Biden took office, risking stalling the party’s priorities. That includes work on strong rules to prevent digital discrimination. The FCC has until November to come up with rules that would benefit communities of color — something groups say is impossible without a Democratic majority, which requires confirmation of Gigi Sohn.
“The commission is hamstrung and it absolutely compromises the FCC’s ability to do anything on the issues we care about,” said Lisa Navarrete, communications director at UnidosUS, a Hispanic civil rights group.
In her third appearance before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, FCC nominee Sohn on Tuesday laid out the reasons why Biden continues to nominate her despite claims from Republicans and opponents that she doesn’t have the votes to clear the Senate.
“First, I care deeply about the mission of the FCC and have dedicated my entire career to that mission — ensuring that everyone, regardless of income level, race, gender, sexual orientation, or where they live — has access to affordable and robust communications networks so they can be full participants in our economy, our education and health care systems, our culture, and our democracy,” Sohn said.
Sohn’s confirmation is seen as critical to rules against digital discrimination the FCC is working on to address unequal access to the internet across the US. The 2021 infrastructure law (Public Law 117-58) required the FCC to provide equal access to broadband service to all Americans.
Read more: Native Americans Long ‘Left Out’ From Broadband Push for Equity
Outside groups say a Democratic majority ultimately is needed to set regulations on companies to give them more incentives to service neglected areas of the country.
“The digital discrimination rules will absolutely not be strong enough to do the job without a third Democrat,” Public Knowledge Senior Vice President Harold Feld said. “There are too many divisions along party lines. Without a third Democrat, these rules will not do the job Congress intended.”
Sohn is the founder and former CEO of Public Knowledge, a group that advocates for broadband access, among other internet issues.
Republicans on the commission haven’t spoken publicly on the digital discrimination rulemaking. But a former FCC official said members of the party are more likely to back rules based on creating tax incentives to serve marginalized communities. A more aggressive approach based on punitive measures, such as fines on internet service providers, is unlikely to succeed in a 2-2 commission, said the former FCC official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
“Having five FCC commissioners will help complete the work to get this done,” Sen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) told Bloomberg Government on the sidelines of the hearing.
Kenneth Romero, executive director of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, is also concerned the digital discrimination proceeding may be hamstrung by the deadlock on the commission. But some Hispanic groups contend the problem is bigger than rules — and comes down to representation on the FCC itself, and the lack of a Hispanic fifth commissioner.
Romero’s group hasn’t taken a position on Sohn’s nomination. The group says if Biden withdraws Sohn’s nomination, they would advocate for a Hispanic commissioner.
The groups argue that Hispanic representation on the commission is crucial for advancing issues relevant to the community, such as Spanish language disinformation through radio and other media that touches on everything from vaccines to elections.
“It’s a dereliction of duty from the FCC to not be doing anything on this,” Romero said. “We need a Hispanic to make this a priority. It’s more pressing than ever.”
Brenda Victoria Castillo, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, said her group’s concerns about a lack of representation continue to be ignored by the Biden administration.
“Members that sit at that level of influence and power should represent a portion of the population that is among the most affected by policy issues like disinformation, Broadband Access, and Net Neutrality,” Castillo said in a statement.
White House deputy press secretary Olivia Dalton said Sohn has strong support from communities of color and Latino leaders. The Hispanic Federation and UnidosUS have come out in support of Sohn. “We take representation seriously and are proud to have built an administration that looks like America,” Dalton said in an email.
Other groups, such as National Latina Organization MANA and the National Hispanic Media Coalition, have raised concerns the White House insists on Sohn’s nomination because they intend to make her chair of the commission. They point to Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan, who was confirmed by the Senate to be a commissioner but was made chair after.
“It’s absolutely a concern. In all of the conversations I’ve had, that’s where everyone sees the wind shifting,” MANA CEO Amy Hinojosa said. ”I can’t be the only one that is flummoxed by her repeated nomination even though she doesn’t have the support. Why do we keep going back to this well when we’re not drawing water?”
A White House spokesperson said there’s no commitments made related to naming a chair.
To contact the reporter on this story: Maria Curi in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anna Yukhananov at email@example.com; Robin Meszoly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Stay informed with more news like this – from the largest team of reporters on Capitol Hill – subscribe to Bloomberg Government today. Learn more.