With few legislative days left on the calendar, the US Senate Commerce Committee held a confirmation hearing on Wednesday for President Biden's nominees for National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) administrator – Alan Davidson, and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner – Gigi Sohn.
If confirmed, both Sohn and Davidson will hold key roles in setting rules and implementing the $65 billion broadband bill passed by Congress and signed by President Biden in November. While the NTIA is responsible for distributing most of the funding to the states, the FCC is charged with updating the nation's broadband maps, as well as coming up with rules around digital discrimination (or "digital redlining"), establishing an affordability program (similar to the Emergency Broadband Benefit) and assessing the future of the Universal Service Fund.
"If confirmed, I will continue to do what I've done for my entire career since leaving MIT: build networks and technologies with intention, with responsibility and with the ultimate goal of improving lives," said Davidson.
For his part, Davidson said in opening remarks that his goal at the NTIA will be three-fold: to close the digital divide, to coordinate a national approach to spectrum use and to build a "better Internet" with respect to consumer privacy and cybersecurity.
Overall, the nominees offered few details beyond what's written in the broadband legislation but affirmed their commitment to working collaboratively to implement it as successfully as possible.
Serving the 'unserved'
Several senators raised concerns about funds for broadband going toward "overbuilding," or building networks in places where they already exist. Pressed by Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) on prior comments she made describing "overbuilding" as another word for "competition," Sohn said while she stands by those comments she also agrees with serving those in the US without any access first, as is spelled out in the infrastructure legislation.
"I do support what's in the IIJA [Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act], the notion that the money should go first to building where there is nothing, or 'unserved' areas, and then and only then should underserved areas be served," she said.
"I've always been a strong advocate for the public interest. But I have also demonstrated a willingness to reach out and sit down with people who disagree with my position to try and find common ground," said Sohn in opening remarks. "You will always know where I'm coming from, and my door will always be open."
Davidson, too, said that he supported comments made by Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo that the federal government must avoid using funds to "overbuild" networks. "I think the statute is actually quite clear," said Davidson. "It lays out a framework. Unserved is first. And you have my commitment, if confirmed, to follow that framework faithfully."
Rate regulation and munis
Sohn was asked multiple times whether she supports the FCC regulating broadband rates, to which she repeatedly said no. Asked whether she thinks private networks are better than public ones, or vice versa, she said what matters is to have the choice. Sohn described middle-mile open access networks like UTOPIA Fiber's as being particularly successful models, but said it should be left to local communities to decide. "I wouldn't put my thumb on the scale that one is better than the other. I just think that communities should have a choice," she said.
On this episode of The Divide, we hear from Roger Timmerman, CEO of UTOPIA Fiber, on why the open-access muni model works in Utah.
Sohn also said she opposed the former administration's idea for a national 5G network. But asked by Rep. Mike Lee (R-UT) why she draws a distinction between the federal government ownership of broadband, and state, local or municipal ownership of broadband, she didn't have an immediate answer. "I haven't actually really thought much about that."
As with Jessica Rosenworcel's hearing, the subject of broadband mapping came up early as a crucial issue for the nominees to address. Davidson and Sohn both agreed the maps are a mess and committed to fixing them. Asked for a timeline, Sohn said she could not offer one because she wasn't yet privy to internal FCC information.
"I don't think I could give you a timeline. I will just say as a person who has said, over and over again, you can't make good policy without good maps, if I'm confirmed, that would be one of the things I would dedicate myself to. And I would hope that the chairwoman would task me with working on those maps," said Sohn.
Last but not least, Sohn fielded multiple questions and concerns about the FCC imposing net neutrality rules through Title II. While she repeatedly affirmed her support for net neutrality, she also said it should be the job of Congress to address.
"I've been an advocate for net neutrality for 20 years, and I'm as tired of the ping-pong game as anybody. However, until Congress acts, I think it's critical that consumers be protected and competition be promoted," she said. "If necessary, the FCC will have to go to Title II ... but boy would I really appreciate it if Congress did act."
— Nicole Ferraro, site editor, Broadband World News; senior editor, global broadband coverage, Light Reading. Host, "The Divide" on the Light Reading Podcast