Biden FCC nominee raises new questions about rural internet access

President Joe Biden’s nominee to serve on the Federal Communications Commission could provide another warning about a battle between billionaires Elon Musk and Michael Dell over spectrum for internet access.

Several technology leaders and advocacy groups want to allocate a public resource known as 12 GHz spectrum in a way that critics say would block satellite internet services that already provide connectivity to hundreds of thousands of Americans in across rural America. Satellite Internet services have been a means of providing Internet service to rural America and tribal lands, especially in mountainous areas.

Biden’s FCC nominee Gigi Sohn is linked to two advocacy groups pushing for the spectrum change. However, she did not take a formal position on the matter during her confirmation hearing.

“If you reserve satellites just for extremely rural areas, the business model ultimately won’t work,” TechFreedom general counsel Jim Dunstan told FOX Business. “Starlink and other companies always need a subscriber base. They always need suburbs and urban areas. If satellites have to compete with local cable or phone companies, that doesn’t help guys of the satellite.”

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In some cases, this puts satellite companies in direct competition with local state-owned companies that have an advantage over private companies, Dunstan said.

“For municipally-owned utilities, city governments can play dumb government tricks and can make life miserable for competitors,” Dunstan said. “To roll out 12 GHz to 5G, you’d take the satellite guys away. It’s great for urban areas, but 5G isn’t more likely to reach rural areas. It would starve rural areas to pay city dwellers .”

MSD Capital, a private fund management firm linked to Michael Dell, the founder of Dell Technologies, called on the FCC to adopt a new policy for 12 GHz.

The policy could also have a particular impact on Musk-owned Starlink, which provides internet access to around 250,000 homes and businesses. In 2020, SpaceX urged the FCC not to expand the availability of 12 GHz spectrum.

Elon Musk (AP Photo/Matt Rourke/AP Newsroom)

However, the two spectra – 5G and 12 GHz – can coexist without interfering with each other, says Chip Pickering, CEO of Incompass and co-chair of the 5G for 12GHz Coalition.

Moreover, Pickering does not believe that approval of the GHz spectrum expansion is based on Sohn’s confirmation.

“I don’t see it depending on whether it’s confirmed. We think it’s been a completely bipartisan process,” Pickering, a former Republican House member, told Fox News. “In the race with China for 5G, it gives us an advantage to connect all Americans, in rural areas especially, as well as in urban areas. What we have now is a big waste of one of most valuable strategic assets we have.”

Sohn’s Ties

If confirmed, Sohn would be the third Democrat in the FCC, currently split 2-2.

Sohn is a senior researcher at the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, an organization that is part of the 5G for 12 GHz Coalition.

The 5G coalition for 12 GHz includes Dell Technologies. The Benton Institute Board of Trustees includes Mignon Clyburn, former FCC Commissioner and daughter of House Majority Whip James Clyburn, DS.C.

Gigi Sohn

Gigi Sohn, President Biden’s nominee for commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, during a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee confirmation hearing in Washington on February 9, 2022. (Pete Marovich/The New York Times/Bloomberg via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Sohn is also the co-founder and former CEO of the technology nonprofit Public Knowledge, which along with DISH Network is a member of the coalition supporting Spectrum Change. Dish Network holds licenses in the 12 GHz band covering around 75% of the United States and would be able to build the 5G network. Dish donated at least $50,000 to Public Knowledge.

In a written questionnaire from members of the Senate, Sohn received several questions about the 12 GHz spectrum, but was generally evasive and unsure how she thought it would affect satellite internet service providers.

“As I stated at the hearing, 5G is going to be a transformative technology. I agree that the commission should study the issues of the 12 GHz band before moving forward. ‘m looking forward to reviewing the case file,” Sohn replied. to one of the questions, as she answered other questions on the same subject.

Senate Response

The Senate Commerce Committee is deadlocked 14-14 on Sohn’s nomination, but it could still get a 50-50 floor vote in the Senate where Vice Chair Kamala Harris can cast a deciding vote in favor of the democrats.

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Sohn addressed some of these issues in his responses to written questions from members of the Senate Finance Committee.

Senator Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, noted that in 2021, Sohn told a House panel, “Policymakers have disproportionately focused on rolling out broadband in rural areas of the United States. Americans who live in cities also face enormous challenges when it comes to broadband connectivity.”

Sullivan asked, “Would you agree that extremely rural border communities without any broadband infrastructure — like many in Alaska — perhaps deserve disproportionate attention from policymakers?”

She replied that she had spent two decades with the “goal of ensuring that every household in the United States – both rural and urban – has robust and affordable high-speed Internet access“.

“I also recognize that there are communities and states, like Alaska, where deployment is more difficult,” she wrote in response to Sullivan. “I support the broadband provisions in the infrastructure bill because, not only has Congress required that funding go to unserved areas first, but it also requires states to receive and distribute the funds. “

In response to a question from Senator Tim Scott, RS.C., on whether private investment in satellite Internet could possibly reduce or replace the need for government-funded broadband, she expressed doubts – and identified the company owned by Musk.

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“The FCC, through the Rural Development Opportunity Fund, has invested $886 million in Starlink, indicating that even satellite broadband will require public investment,” Sohn wrote in response to Scott’s question. “There are also challenges with satellite broadband that don’t make it a replacement for traditional fiber-based deployment.

A coalition of 20 conservative and free-market groups, which includes Americans for Tax Reform and FreedomWorks, signed a March 25 letter urging the Senate to reject Sohn’s nomination.

“Sohn’s confirmation would jeopardize investment and innovation, threaten free speech, and bring partisanship to the FCC,” the letter said.

Lobbying for change

Communications Daily reported that the 12GHz Coalition expects FCC Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel “appears to be waiting for the Senate to confirm Gigi Sohn as the FCC’s third Democrat, but if that doesn’t happen soon, they’re hoping that the agency will act with the current division 2-2.”

“There is growing recognition that the FCC should move forward to license the 12 GHz band for 5G,” Jeff Blum, Dish Network’s executive vice president of external and legislative affairs, told Communications Daily in March. “It’s a bipartisan issue.”

However, DISH Network signed a 2016 filing with the FCC that a base receiver using their technology would interfere with a base station for satellite internet within seven miles.

The same filing cites a study that even a mobile device within 22 meters of a satellite internet device would cause interference. He goes on to cite a coexistence study that concludes that sharing certain 12 GHz bands in the same geographic area as the satellites is “impractical, if not unfeasible.”

DISH acknowledged that there was a risk of interference in an SEC filing from March that said, “Despite regulatory provisions designed to protect DBS [direct broadcast satellite] and SFS [fixed satellite service] operations from harmful interference, there can be no assurance that operations by other satellites or terrestrial communications services in the DBS and FSS bands will not interfere with our DBS and FSS operations or adversely affect our business “.

Spectrum buying is not new to Dell’s personal investment firm, MSD Capital. As of 2011, the company has spent at least $90 million buying over 20 struggling TV stations. In 2017, Dell sold the spectrum rights to 10 of those stations for nearly $440.7 million, The Wall Street Journal reported.

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