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High-speed internet is a necessity, not a luxury: public advocate

Gigi Sohn in 2022 during her nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Pete Marovich
Gigi Sohn in 2022 during her nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Gigi Sohn, ex-counselor to the Federal Communications Commission, will visit Falmouth and host a broadband forum on Tuesday.

Just as gas and electricity are treated as public utilities, the same should go for broadband internet, says Gigi Sohn.

As former counsel to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Sohn advised then-Chairman Tom Wheeler on telecommunications. Sohn was later President Biden's choice for FCC commissioner, though the Senate blocked those nominations.

Sohn is executive director of the nonprofit American Association for Public Broadband. She spoke with Morning Edition host Patrick Flanary ahead of a public forum on internet access in Falmouth.

Patrick Flanary You are, in your words, advocating for a fast, fair and open internet. Why does equal access to broadband internet matter?

Gigi Sohn You can't fully participate in our society, our economy, our education system, and our health care system unless you have affordable access to robust broadband internet. It allows you to have a telehealth appointment and allows a child to do their homework. There was a point up until the pandemic where people were saying, "Superfast internet is a luxury." Well, nobody says that anymore. And it really is critical to being able to operate in a modern society.

Flanary I remember the slow dial-up connection in my parents' house around 1996 when the internet was new. You've said that that era was "a better world." Why is that?

Sohn It was a better world only because there was more competition. The dominant telephone provider in that era had to open up its networks to competitors. So the average American had a choice of 13 dial-up internet service providers. Clearly, the quality of the connection and the ability to do lots of different things was not there. But from a consumer perspective, it was a better time.

Flanary The FCC regulates radio and TV, but not online content. And yet our public utilities, such as gas and water, are regulated. Why isn't high-speed internet access regulated in the same fashion?

Sohn High-speed internet access was regulated until the Trump FCC completely deregulated it, in 2017. Now the current FCC is looking to reinstate its ability to regulate high-speed internet access, and that would give it the ability, for example, to set what we call net neutrality rules that prohibit broadband internet access providers from discriminating against or favoring certain traffic. It would allow it to adopt privacy rules to ensure that one's information isn't given away freely to your broadband provider, who can then turn around and sell it to a variety of advertisers. And as you said, it is like gas and electricity, to the extent that it is not a luxury. It's a necessity. And it should be treated as a utility.

Flanary It wasn't too long ago that you were close to becoming the FCC commissioner. You were nominated three times; the Senate initially blocked you, and you eventually withdrew. What would have been your first order of business as commissioner?

Sohn I really would have used the bully pulpit to promote not only the reinstatement of regulatory authority over broadband, but the strengthening of that authority, particularly in the net neutrality sphere, in ensuring that there is an open internet that does not discriminate and ensures that privacy is protected. I do think that the current FCC leadership is not using its bully pulpit enough to advocate for universal, affordable and robust broadband.

Flanary Let's talk about the push in Falmouth to build a locally controlled fiber-optic network. The citizens group FalmouthNet is behind this, and there's also OpenCape, another nonprofit working to establish affordable high-speed service and compete with the big guys like Xfinity. What about this local effort impresses you?

Sohn What impresses me is the community support. There is so much opposition to building these public networks from giant multinational corporations, the Xfinitys and the AT&Ts of the world, that if you don't have the community behind you it's very, very difficult to complete the project. So the political leadership is behind it. That is going to get you over the hump, even as the incumbents hide behind dark money organizations.

Flanary My son is 8 years old. How young is too young for him to be going online and surfing? He's already trying to take my iPhone from me.

Sohn It's hard to to prevent. I would say the best thing for parents and teachers to do is to teach internet literacy. It's impossible, particularly for working parents, to look over their kids' shoulders. I know I couldn't do with my daughter. But I'm hoping that the schools really are teaching both internet literacy and media literacy: understanding what you're seeing on television and on the internet, and knowing how to analyze that in a way to make intelligent decisions.

Sohn will meet with the Falmouth Select Board on Monday, and give the keynote at the Falmouth Broadband Forum on Tuesday at the Historical Society, at 7 p.m.

Patrick Flanary is a dad, journalist, and host of Morning Edition.