FCC's Sohn: Wired Broadband Competition Lacking

Gigi Sohn, senior counselor to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, told a New Haven, Conn., audience Monday that "the simple truth is that meaningful competition for high-speed wired broadband is lacking."

She came not to bury broadband, but to praise the state's 1 gig community broadband project as a way to provide that "lacking" competition.

The FCC made 25 Mbps the new target definition for high-speed broadband, but in her speech, Sohn blew by that mile marker, saying: "We want to see average speeds grow to 50 Megabits per second, 100, and eventually even 1 Gigabit per second."

She suggested that only then is bandwidth removed as a "constraint on innovation."

She said that while 4G LTE mobile broadband is the envy of the world, the fixed broadband side was another story.

"International rankings consistently score the U.S. outside the top 10 in broadband speeds," she said. "Last I checked, most Americans aren’t content with being outside the top 10 in anything that matters – certainly not anything as important as the quality of our digital infrastructure."

"According to Akamai, the average fixed broadband connection in America is about 12 megabits per second. That’s fine if you live alone, and all you’re doing online is minimal browsing each night while streaming a movie on Netflix. But broadband can enable so much more."

Echoing chairman Wheeler's arguments for regulating ISPs, boosting speed targets, and preempting state laws limiting broadband, Sohn said that at the FCC's 25 Mbps target, just under three-quarters of U.S. homes have either one option or no option at that speed.

She said that lack of broadband options for those speeds could lead to all kinds of bad things, including network neutrality violations. "Lack of competition typically means lesser service and higher prices for consumers. It also increases the risks that broadband providers could use their market power in a way that threatens Internet openness," she said.

Sohn also pointed to 19 states with laws limiting municipal broadband buildouts.  She said, again echoing Wheeler, that the bills were frequently passed due to heavy lobbying from incumbent ISPs. The FCC has already preempted laws in two states—Tennessee and North Carolina—but Sohn indicated those will likely not be the last.

"The Commission respects the important role of state governments in our federal system, and we do not take the matter of preempting state laws lightly," she said. "But when state laws directly conflict with Federal laws and policy, we will not be afraid to act."

At least in Tennessee and North Carolina, the FCC made it clear its preemption applied to laws that disallowed expansions of broadband buildouts already authorized by state laws, and said preemption did not extend to state laws banning municipal broadband systems outright.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.