There is mounting evidence that Gigi Sohn, President Biden's nomination to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), may never get Senate approval. That could spell the end of his efforts to reinstate the agency's net neutrality guidelines trashed by former President Trump.
"All indications suggest that it's over and [the White House] is just figuring out how to move forward with a different pick," a former FCC official told S&P Global Market Intelligence.
Without Sohn, a Democrat, Biden's FCC will remain deadlocked with two Republicans and two Democrats, and therefore won't have the votes to move forward with net neutrality. That's noteworthy considering that the US Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is forging ahead with funding of up to $65 billion to help disadvantaged Americans buy telecom services and network operators build services in rural areas.
According to the financial analysts at New Street Research, the Senate's ongoing inaction on Sohn's nomination suggests that it "remains a back burner issue for Democratic leadership."
Biden nominated Sohn to the FCC eight months into his presidency, and despite two rounds of Senate hearings her nomination remains in limbo. Biden's delays and inaction at the FCC stand in contrast to the Trump administration's quick efforts to install a Republican chairman, Ajit Pai, and Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr.
"Because Senate Democratic leadership has failed to demand clear commitments from its caucus and call a floor vote on Sohn, the agency tasked with ensuring the public's ability to communicate remains unable to operate at full capacity," noted Free Press Action Co-CEO Craig Aaron on June 4 – a date significant because it represented the 500th day of the Biden administration without a full-strength, five-member FCC.
According to a lengthy report by Politico in April, Sohn faces opposition from Republicans, some moderate Democrats and some telecom industry allies. Her opponents variously argue that she is dismissive of rural America's broadband needs, is hostile toward law enforcement and favors Big Tech companies over minority communities.
Within the telecom industry, support for Sohn is mixed, with some trade associations backing her nomination and others not.
Some Senate Democrats are withholding their support for Sohn, which is unlikely to change amid a summer Congressional recess and the ensuing November midterm elections. If Republicans end up controlling the Senate, future FCC proceedings could be impacted.
As the nation's telecoms regulator, the FCC weighs in on a wide range of issues. Top among them are spectrum for 5G and national broadband maps, which could be used to help allocate federal funding to bridge the digital divide.
But it's net neutrality that could rank near the top of Biden's telecom goals, especially considering Sohn served as a legal counselor to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler during the Obama administration. Wheeler's FCC voted to implement the net neutrality guidelines that Pai then dismantled. Sohn and Biden's pick to lead the FCC, Jessica Rosenworcel, have both voiced support for net neutrality.
Thus, without the FCC's backing, the topic of net neutrality would appear to be pushed down to the states. Already California appears to have passed the final hurdle in its efforts to impose net neutrality there. That potentially paves the way for other states to do the same.
- Joe Biden's net neutrality threat to 5G
- Senators press Sohn, Davidson on how they'll implement broadband bill
- ISPs drop fight against California's net neutrality law, will shift focus to DC