FCC's Sohn: 25 Mbps a Snail's Pace in Fiber World

Says Broadband Nets Don't Meet Users' Needs

Gigi Sohn, counselor to Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler, told a fiber-to-the-home conference in California this week that the FCC was ready to step in to preempt any more state laws that hampered municipal fiber buildouts and would give cities money to build them if the big telecom companies don't step up.

Sohn also made it clear she did not think commercial broadband networks were cutting it.

"It’s not hard to see that current networks are not up to the task to meet the needs of today’s Internet users," Sohn told the Fiber on Fire conference in Anaheim, Calif., June 30. Sohn spoke about people -- 1 in 6 Americans, she said -- who can't get 25-Mbps broadband, which she noted Wheeler has called table stakes for "full use" of the Internet.

She also pointed out that the FCC had upped its baseline for high-speed service to the 25-Mbps threshold, but added even that was a "snail's pace" in a world of fiber.

The FCC earlier this year preempted state laws limiting municipal broadband buildouts in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., where she said service had been substandard or nonexistant. Sohn said the FCC was ready to do so again if needed.

"The FCC respects the important role of state governments in our federal system, and we don’t take preemption of state laws lightly," she said. "But when state laws directly conflict with federal laws and policy, we are not afraid to take action."

Sohn pointed to efforts that did not involve the FCC's intervention.

"In cities and towns where incumbent broadband access providers have not stepped up to provide their customers with the reliably fast service they need at a reasonable price, community leaders are taking matters into their own hands," she said.

The FCC is also ready to invest in those buildouts. Sohn said the FCC has Universal Service Fund subsidies that municipalities can access if the major telecoms, who get first crack at the funds, pass on the money.

"In our Connect America Fund order last December, we guaranteed broadband providers more than $10 billion over six years for broadband deployment to underserved areas," she said. "If the price cap providers don’t take advantage of these funds, other providers will be able to take their place, including municipal systems and electric cooperatives that want to deploy fiber networks."

Sohn is on a bit of a fiber road tour, having earlier in the week spoken at a fiber launch party in Maryland.