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In this critical moment for digital access, we must confirm Gigi Sohn for the FCC

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Today, as millions of children are being sent home from school yet again due to the omicron variant sweeping the nation, it has never been more critical to bring everyone the benefits of broadband — high-quality high-speed internet access. 

Now thanks to the billions committed in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress and signed by President Biden, we have the best opportunity in a generation to actually close the digital divide for good.

But this essential work cannot happen without the swift confirmation of Gigi Sohn as a commissioner with the Federal Communications Commission.

As a commissioner on the FCC at the turn of the century and the last Latino to hold that position, I was concerned that Latinos and other people of color were being left behind by the telecommunications revolution.

I foresaw that the internet would be the new public square — that it would be critical to every facet of American life, from employment to education, healthcare and more. That’s why I fought for funding to subsidize internet connections in schools and libraries in low-income areas, to ensure that Latinos and other disadvantaged communities were not left behind.

I’ve known Sohn in my time as a commissioner and as a fellow advocate for the public interest. I have no doubt that she will be an ally to those focused on equity, justice and economic fairness. She has a strong track record of promoting policies that make internet access more affordable for the poor, people of color and people living on tribal lands.

The numbers continue to show that Latinos, Black people and Native Americans are less likely to have quality home internet connections than white people, even when controlling for income and other factors. To eliminate ongoing racial, ethnic, geographic and income-based disparities in internet access, we need a fully functional FCC.

The longer we wait for this seat to be filled, the longer these disparities will linger. The poorest communities are often the most disadvantaged due to a lack of investment by broadband carriers in their neighborhoods, and plenty of data shows that this regularly corresponds along racial and ethnic lines. 

For example, a study by the University of Southern California found that Black neighborhoods in Los Angeles County were being skipped by broadband companies on the latest upgrades. A study by the Greenlining Institute found that historical housing discrimination parallels closely with broadband deployment in Oakland. So it should come as no surprise that those two little girls forced to do homework on fast food parking lot Wi-Fi that caught national attention were Latina. Ending this digital redlining will require the FCC, much in the same way the government has had to in the past, to prohibit such discrimination.

During President Trump’s administration, the FCC deregulated the broadband industry so the agency is unable to address today’s worsening inequality of access. President Biden has made clear his desire to restore the agency to its core mission and to carry out his infrastructure agenda to connect all people to high-quality high-speed broadband access. That important work will not begin until the Senate confirms Sohn.

At present, the FCC is deadlocked at a two-two party-line split. The two democratic commissioners believe the FCC must return to regulating broadband access on behalf of the public. Biden’s FCC Chair, Jessica Rosenworcel, has been adamant about the need to eliminate the “homework gap” so that we no longer see kids using fast food Wi-Fi to do their school work. However, the two Republican commissioners firmly believe that the federal government should avoid regulating this critical industry. This is despite a recent poll showing that 76 percent of Americans believe broadband is as essential to their lives as water and electricity.

Sure enough, industry efforts to perpetuate the standstill are focused on opposing Sohn’s confirmation. Imagine being in a business where you sell a product most people believe they must buy to survive in today’s economy and yet no rules prevent you from exploiting that position? That would be a pretty sweet deal for your industry, but a terrible one for the public. Quality customer service, public safety readiness and fair access can all be shortchanged to maximize profits and nothing can be done about it. Industry profits will always take priority in the absence of clear rules and public officials willing to enforce them.

We need the Senate to break the current logjam and put the FCC back on the job by immediately confirming Sohn. Our well-being and economic prosperity depend on it.

Gloria Tristani is a former special advisor to the National Hispanic Media Coalition and served as an FCC commissioner from 1997 to 2001.

Tags Broadband Digital divide Donald Trump Federal Communications Commission Gigi Sohn Homework gap Internet access Jessica Rosenworcel Joe Biden National Broadband Plan Net neutrality in the United States Technology

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