Commentary

Fixing the digital divide requires senators to approve Biden’s FCC nominee

May 18, 2022 9:30 am

Photo by Franck | Unsplash

Last week, President Joe Biden rolled out the red carpet for major Internet Service Providers promising to increase internet speed and quality, and lower the cost of internet for low-income families. These commitments, following an act of Congress to create the Affordable Connectivity Program last November, are not nearly good enough for the 30% of Arizonans who lack home broadband and the 12 million students across the country that are still offline.

Words are not action, they don’t address places where these profitable corporations refuse to invest in infrastructure to carry internet to homes, and they are not long-term solutions.

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

If you’ve ever had to schedule a service call appointment with your internet company, you’ve probably prepared to be left hanging. During the pandemic, these companies pledged not to disconnect Americans from their Internet connection, and yet they did anyway. This week’s White House announcement doesn’t hold corporations accountable for delivering service to the homes who need it most, nor would it introduce the competition we need to keep the cost of home internet affordable for more.

The Federal Communications Commission has all of these issues on their agenda but have been operating without a full panel of commissioners for over six months since Gigi Sohn was nominated by Biden to fill the vacancy.

While Internet Service Providers connect more affluent areas to faster speeds at lower prices, they leave families in low-income neighborhoods with slower broadband that is more expensive. From cities like Phoenix where 20% lack home broadband to rural areas like Apache County where 99% lack it, the digital divide is a major concern. The FCC is still one critical commissioner short until the U.S. Senate confirms Gigi Sohn to help the FCC address this long-standing problem. Senators Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema are in a prime position to ensure all Arizonans can benefit from the Internet by propelling Sohn to confirmation.

When the pandemic hit and people needed broadband the most, Internet Service Providers — many of which saw their profits skyrocket — let us down. This is a market failure that strong leaders, like Sohn, at the FCC can correct while moving us towards a future in which broadband works for everyone. But upsetting business as usual threatens the corporations with a stranglehold on our communications and we need senators Sinema and Kelly to take a stand for Sohn to join the agency and move forward the changes that Arizonans need.

Ms. Sohn brings over 30 years of experience working in government and nonprofits and I have worked with her over the past decade. When Sohn served as senior counsel to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, she listened to delegations of impacted people convened by MediaJustice, an organization that I lead to fight for our right to communicate. Sohn drew upon those meetings to influence policy that advances our communications access and power. It’s no coincidence that during her time at the FCC, the Commission lowered the cost of calls between incarcerated people and their loved ones, expanded the Lifeline program–which brought millions of  low-income families online, and passed Net Neutrality rules to protect our voices online.

The public interest in tackling the systemic inequities that exist in the telecommunications industry will be strongly represented by Sohn, when the Senate votes to add her to the Commission against industry lobbyists working to gin up opposition in the halls of Congress. Sohn’s appointment will tilt the direction FCC, now evenly split between two commissioners that support the policies that would get more Arizonans online and two who would leave it to corporations to decide.

For years carriers intentionally made discriminatory choices even though it magnifies already existing racial inequalities. Their profits will always take priority in the absence of rules and the pain that inflicts in our communities here in Arizona and across the country. No other industry, from airlines to medicine to food, currently enjoy this level of exploitive power because they all have regulators that oversee their practices.

We are long past allowing this to continue. Senators Sinema and Kelly need to confirm Sohn to get the FCC back up and running at full capacity for the public.

SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Steven Renderos
Steven Renderos

Steven Renderos is the executive director of MediaJustice, fighting for just and participatory platforms for expression. He lives in Tucson.

MORE FROM AUTHOR