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Joe Biden

U.S. President Joe Biden listens to speakers during an event on high speed internet access for low-income Americans in the Rose Garden of the White House May 9, 2022 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

ISPs Under Fire for Sabotaging Biden FCC as White House Touts Broadband Program

"Instead of applauding corporations that continue to fail families," said one critic, "President Biden should be applying pressure to Senate leadership to confirm his Federal Communications Commission nominee Gigi Sohn."

Julia Conley

Media justice groups on Monday warned that the Biden administration's new program offering discounted internet service to people with low incomes isn't "nearly enough" to help households facing barriers to broadband access and denounced the White House for celebrating the program with the same companies currently blocking the confirmation of consumer advocate Gigi Sohn to the Federal Communications Commission.

"These companies don't need a White House ceremony, they need the oversight and regulation that only a complete FCC can provide."

The White House announced Monday that it has brokered a deal with 20 internet providers which will offer discounted service to people whose incomes are at or below 200% of the federal poverty line or who participate in government-run housing, food assistance, or other aid programs.

An estimated 48 million people across the U.S. will qualify for reduced rates under the program, according to the Biden administration, which arranged the lower costs with companies including Altice USA, AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and Spectrum.

The commitment from internet companies is expected to build on the $14.2 billion Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which was passed as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in 2021. That program provides $30 monthly stipends for low income households and $75 stipends for people in tribal areas. Before the White House's announcement on Monday, 11.5 million families were participating in the ACP.

According to the White House, about 40% of U.S. households will now qualify for the ACP under the agreement with the internet companies, which will apply to high-speed plans of at least 100 megabits per second.

The companies involved in the deal, said the grassroots group MediaJustice, which fights for racial, economic, and gender justice within digital spaces, are some of the same internet providers that have lobbied the Democratic Party to stall Sohn's confirmation.

"Instead of applauding corporations that continue to fail families needing to stay connected to healthcare, jobs, school, and one another through the pandemic, President Biden should be applying pressure to Senate leadership to confirm his Federal Communications Commission nominee Gigi Sohn," said Steven Renderos, president of the organization.

"While Sohn's confirmation has stalled for over six months, preventing the full functioning of the FCC, these internet service providers watched their profits rise as 21 million Americans go without home broadband," he added. "These companies don't need a White House ceremony, they need the oversight and regulation that only a complete FCC can provide."

As Common Dreams reported last month, the telecommunications industry has donated to political action committees intent on waging a "smear campaign" against Sohn aimed at portraying her as insufficiently committed to expanding rural broadband access and as having a "deeply problematic track record on media diversity issues."

"It's going to be hard to watch them stand shoulder to shoulder with leaders of the same companies orchestrating a shameful smear campaign against their FCC nominee," tweeted advocacy group Free Press ahead of the White House ceremony announcing the program.

Contrary to claims by groups like One Country Project—which was started with "leftover campaign cash" by former Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who had close ties while in office to Comcast and AT&T—advocates of Sohn's confirmation say that the founder of telecom policy group Public Knowledge has called for greater attention to broadband affordability across the U.S., in rural areas as well as urban ones.

"As we recover from the pandemic, predict an urgent health crisis precipitated by a Supreme Court decision depriving Americans of their reproductive rights, and head toward midterm elections, Black and brown families will continue to be disproportionately harmed by being left offline because they cannot afford an internet connection," said Renderos. "The commitments to increasing speed and quality of internet connections are just pledges and do nothing to improve infrastructure, especially in rural areas and on tribal lands that are still not connected."

Some of the people representing internet providers at the White House on Monday, said Matt Wood, vice president of policy for Free Press, are actively "sabotaging President Biden's FCC even as they pose for today's photo op."

Sohn, a fierce defender of net neutrality, was nominated to the FCC earlier this year. Her confirmation would end the 2-2 deadlock of the panel, which has left the commissioners unable to reinstate net neutrality protections, ensure that the funds appropriated for the ACP are distributed equitably, create rules to protect communications networks from the climate crisis and other threats, and halt monopolization within the sector.

Biden's efforts to ensure Sohn is confirmed "have not been nearly enough," said Renderos, urging the president to work with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) "to get the votes necessary to confirm Sohn now and get the FCC fully running."

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, came under fire in February for delaying a vote on Sohn's confirmation and for calling a second hearing on her nomination.

"We've now been waiting 474 days for President Biden and the Senate to give the nation a fully functional FCC," said Wood on Monday. "They have utterly failed to fully staff this vital agency, doing little as Senate Republicans and industry lobbyists blatantly block Sohn and repeatedly delay a vote on her nomination."

"The failure of the Democratic administration and Senate majority to see beyond this cynical effort and expediently confirm Sohn," he said, "is undermining the FCC's ability to close the digital divide, protect the open internet, and fulfill many other commitments Biden himself has made."

Continued inaction in Congress regarding Sohn's confirmation, said former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, risks rendering Biden's actions directed at the telecom sector meaningless.

“Big money opposition is conducting a sleazy campaign to stall Ms. Sohn's confirmation, and it's time to put an end to it," said Copps. "The big ISP gatekeepers understand that a functional FCC would hold them accountable and prevent them from engaging in anticompetitive and discriminatory practices that undermine our ability to get online. We can’t allow these corporate interests to subvert the public interest."

"It's simple," he added. "Ms. Sohn deserves a vote."

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