Gigi Sohn's next battle: Fighting for municipal broadband rights as AAPB chief

Just weeks after ending what she described as an “enormously frustrating” 16-month battle to join the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as President Joe Biden’s nominee for the pivotal fifth seat, Gigi Sohn announced at the Broadband Communities Summit this week that she is joining the American Association for Public Broadband (AAPB) as its first executive director.

Fighting municipal broadband restrictions ultimately may prove to be a more fitting role for Sohn, a former FCC attorney who brings to the job 35 years of experience as a public advocate, she said during a media briefing. However, it also will take Sohn into the town halls of communities in many largely rural, conservative states whose Republicans senators – along with Democratic Senator Joe Manchin – led the opposition to Sohn’s FCC bid.

“I've been mapping all the [municipal broadband] systems that are out there, and while I haven't done exact percentages, an awful lot of them are in conservative states,” Sohn said. “It just shows that when you get down to the nitty gritty, when you get down to actually serving people and serving constituents, it's not really a partisan issue.”

She added that some municipal broadband networks are even managing to thrive in states that have rules against such networks, where the operators have found “imaginative ways to get around the restrictions. But they shouldn’t have to do that.” She also cited state-level Republican legislators in some states who are well-known advocates for public broadband and open access. “What a better thing [for a candidate for public office] to run on than for all your constituents to have robust affordable broadband,” Sohn said. “It's a winner.”

The legislative winds may be with Sohn and the AAPB, at least in some states. Colorado, for example, just this week took a step to ease previous restrictions that made it difficult and expensive for local governments to pursue their own broadband projects. 

When she begins working next month as the AAPB’s executive director, Sohn also will face the everyday challenges of growing her organization. She said that she will prioritize adding more membership to the group, which was founded by Highland Communication Services, of Highland, Illinois; Traverse City Light & Power, Traverse City, Michigan; Kitsap PUD in Kitsap County, Washington; Ridgefield Economic & Community Development Commission, of Ridgefield, Connecticut; and UTOPIA Fiber, based in Murray, Utah. The AAPB under Sohn also will work to produce materials and strategies for municipalities to advocate for their own public broadband rights.

“I think now is really the perfect time–well, really past time–but certainly with the money flowing from the federal government down to state and down to localities, it's really the perfect time for public broadband networks to have an organization that advocates for them that works to ensure that they can grow unimpeded… and can have access to the same funding as private operators,” Sohn said. “I don't think that municipal broadband should be the only game in town. Private ISPs should be allowed to thrive and grow as well, but it should be a level playing field. I'm not here to say private broadband companies shouldn't have access to those funds. I'm just saying there shouldn't be any barriers that limit public broadband from getting those funds.”

Sohn also noted that the federal broadband funding process must gain more transparency and better oversight than it has had to date to make sure that municipalities get access to funds in a timely manner and that networks are built without delay and without financial waste.