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[Speech] Remarks of Gigi Sohn at the Falmouth Broadband Forum


Photo of a reel of conduit ready for installation.
Photo: Gigi Sohn speaks at the Falmouth Broadband Forum

The following remarks were delivered on February 13, 2024 at the Falmouth Broadband Forum by AAPB Executive Director Gigi Sohn.


Good evening, everyone. Thank you to David Isenberg and Mary Harris for inviting me. I’m delighted to be here, although normally I wouldn’t choose to come to Cape Cod in mid-February! My name is Gigi Sohn, and I’ve been an advocate for universal, affordable, robust and open communications networks for over 35 years. Most of my career has been spent in the nonprofit sector, although I had the privilege of working for FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler from 2013-2016 as his Counselor.


I’m here today as the Executive Director of the American Association for Public Broadband, a 501(c)(6) non-profit trade association that promotes the interests of community broadband networks and advocates for the right of local communities to choose the broadband networks that best meet the needs of their residents. But I’m also here as a former nominee for FCC Commissioner, who, after 16 months of relentless attacks by industry-backed dark money groups, withdrew my nomination in March of last year. So, I am intimately familiar with the recent attacks on Falmouth.net by Mass Priorities, the initiative of a group called the Domestic Policy Caucus. More on that later.


First, I want to speak to you about why, after five years of deliberation, Falmouth should decide its broadband future and do so without delay. It’s a message I relayed to the Select Board last night. If any of you were there, you may have a case of déjà vu, so I’ll apologize in advance.


The turning point for community broadband, in my opinion, was the COVID-19 pandemic. When we were quarantined in our homes, it became clear to everyone in the US – regardless of political affiliation, geographic location, economic status, race, or gender – that access to high-speed, affordable broadband is necessary for full participation in our society and our economy. Tens of millions of residents could not send their children to school online, work remotely, meet with their doctor virtually or connect with friends and family because they did not have affordable and reliable access to the Internet. At the same time, it also became clear to many communities that the private sector had left them behind – choosing to provide the best service, or in some cases any service at all, only to those communities and households that provided them the greatest return on investment.


I don’t mean to trash the private sector or capitalism. Instead, I want to urge you to take matters into your own hands, not only if you want to make sure that everyone in Falmouth has access to a utility that has become as important to many as gas and electricity, but also if you want to ensure that the town continues to thrive in the future. I just talked about the things that broadband enabled during the pandemic – remote work, telehealth, and online learning. And for a town like Falmouth (and frankly all of Cape Cod) there are many other positive downstream effects and enormous opportunities. They include the fact that fast, reliable and affordable broadband increases home values and attracts, among others, businesses and jobs, scientific research and education institutions, home builders, newer, younger residents and importantly for Cape Cod – tourists. Particularly in a post-pandemic world, millions of people can live and work from anywhere – but that anywhere has to have robust broadband.


Critically, fast and reliable broadband enables Falmouth to become a “smart community,” meaning, among other things, it can monitor vehicle traffic, relieve congestion and manage traffic flow; monitor and manage the town’s infrastructure, including bridges, roads and buildings; manage power consumption; monitor air quality and detect environmental hazards like sea level rise; improve public safety; and enhance citizen engagement. Smart community technology not only improves the quality of life for residents, but it also attracts businesses and jobs; makes government run better and saves a town a lot of money.


There are hundreds of cities and towns that own and sometimes build and operate successful broadband networks across the US, and many are right here in Massachusetts. In fact, if you count co-operatives, which are owned by members of a community, there are some 650 public broadband networks across the US. Some of you may be familiar with the 20 or so towns in the Berkshires that are or will be served by Whip City Fiber, which is Westfield’s municipal broadband network, but there are also a number of other Massachusetts towns and cities with that own community networks, including Shrewsbury, Russell, Norwood and Holyoke.


The good news for Falmouth is that there is more than one way for the town to ensure universal broadband connectivity. Falmouth.net proposes to build and operate its own broadband utility, a tried-and-true model that is working across the country in places like Idaho Falls, Chattanooga Tennessee, Lafayette, Louisiana, Wilson North Carolina, Waterloo Iowa and Colorado Front Range communities like Fort Collins, Longmont and Loveland. But it could, like Chesterfield and five other New Hampshire towns, Colorado Springs, Bountiful City Utah, and Holly Springs, North Carolina, choose to partner with a private entity to build and operate the network. It could join with other towns to form Communications Union Districts or Public Utility Districts to build, own and operate a network, like in Vermont and Washington State. Or it could build an open access network – inviting private ISPs to compete to provide service. Different open access models have been extremely successful in over 20 towns in Utah, in Bozeman, Montana, Ammon, Idaho and elsewhere.


What ties all these models together is that the community controls its future rather than leaving it to an out-of-town media giant whose sole incentive is to maximize profits. Now you may choose to work with a private enterprise – but importantly the community sets the terms to ensure that its goal of connecting every resident with affordable and robust broadband is achieved.


As many of you know, not everybody is happy that Falmouth is looking towards building a community broadband network to ensure that everyone is connected with affordable and robust broadband. As I mentioned previously, a new group called the Domestic Policy Caucus, under an initiative called Mass Priorities, recently criticized Falmouth.net as a poor use of taxpayer dollars, alleging, without any supporting data, that its budget is [m]ore than the entire budget for Falmouth schools, 160 times greater than what has been allocated for veteran’s benefits and 95 times more than is earmarked for senior services.


So, what is the Domestic Policy Caucus, and why has it decided to pick on Falmouth.net? Its website says that It is our mission to support transparent, public conversations on critical policy issues at the local, state and federal level. We educate voters on the issues that will have the greatest impact on their community and support community members as they engage with elected officials on these critical policy matters.


That’s a good mission, right? Except for all of its desire for transparency, the Domestic Policy Caucus has refused to reveal who funds the organization. It also refused, despite several invitations, to have a “public conversation” with me about its opposition to Falmouth.net. It's revealing that Falmouth.net is not the only community broadband network the Domestic Policy Caucus takes issue with. It opposes all community broadband, claiming that “government-owned broadband networks have a long history of failure, causing tax increases and leaving cities and their residents in debt.” These tired and false arguments are taken straight from the cable industry playbook, as is its reliance on a University of Pennsylvania Law School study that was funded by cable.


Now everyone has a right to debate whether or not a community should spend time and resources exploring and building a broadband network. But if you are a dark money anti-public broadband organization with an anodyne name like the Domestic Policy Caucus, the Utah Taxpayer’s Association or the Alliance for Quality Broadband, you need to be honest about who is funding your organization so that people can make intelligent decisions about whether a community broadband network is the right choice. When Noelle Annonen of the Falmouth Enterprise asked the Domestic Policy Caucus where its funding comes from, the answer was “I’m not required to tell you.” While that might be true, that statement speaks volumes.


Let me address the cable industry’s arguments, so that at a minimum, you can rebut them. There are basically two. The first, as mentioned before, is that community broadband networks are all failures. It is true that at that the dawn of broadband some 25 years ago, demand for broadband was low and the cost of equipment was high, leading to some public broadband failures. But there were also many failures among private broadband companies, and indeed the examples the industry uses to make its point are two decades old. With demand for broadband sky-high and equipment costs way down, the current state of community broadband networks is very strong, with failures few and far between.

The second argument is that it is somehow unfair for so-called “private” enterprise to compete with government-funded networks. But please name me one broadband provider that doesn’t take millions, or even billions of federal and state money. This is particularly true now that the federal government has given broadband providers billions of dollars for the Affordable Connectivity Program, which is a $30 a month subsidy for low-income households, and the states are about to give out $42.5 billion for broadband deployment across the US. While in the past big cable companies like Comcast wouldn’t take government money to build new networks, trust me when I say that they are definitely going to participate this time around.


The real beef that cable incumbents have with public broadband is that it provides competition, which forces them to improve their services and lower their prices. And industry would rather spend money on dark money surrogates and lobbyists than improve their networks and customer service.


I want to close by again urging you to ask the Select Board to move forward on finding the right solution for Falmouth’s connectivity problems without further delay. Five years to decide is a long time in Internet years, and the town is in danger of being left far behind. AAPB and I stand ready to provide you with any and all support for this project, including defending against any efforts to delay or prevent the town from choosing the broadband network that best serves its residents. Thank you.


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Falmouth Broadband Forum 2.13.24
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