It’s not every day that you get the honor of presenting an award to someone with such an esteemed background as Gigi Sohn. But that’s exactly what happened this week in Arizona when I introduced her as the distinguished recipient of the Digital Equity Institute Impact Award.

Gigi Sohn is a true trailblazer whose dedication and commitment to public advocacy have shaped the very fabric of our modern communications landscape. She’s an inspiration to many, and her work has made her a hero in my book.

For those of you who don’t know Gigi, I’d like to share with you my speech from The Digital Equity Institute Charity Dinner.

Remarks of NDIA Executive Director Angela Siefer—Lighting Up the Future Charity Dinner Speech As Delivered

Tonight, as we gather to celebrate the work of the Digital Equity Institute, it is my privilege to shine a light on the distinguished recipient of the Digital Equity Institute Impact Award, Gigi Sohn.

A true trailblazer whose dedication and commitment to public advocacy has shaped the very fabric of our modern communications landscape. 

For over 30 years, Gigi’s lifelong work – has been ensuring that the networks we in this room access to do our work, communicate with friends and family, bank, shop, educate ourselves, play Wordle – without so much as a single second thought – Gigi’s work has been making sure that the access we enjoy so readily – is available to everybody, regardless of who they are or where they live.

I had the honor to first meet Gigi Sohn about nine years ago when she was Counselor to Federal Communications Chair Tom Wheeler, who had just announced plans to modernize Lifeline for the Internet age. 

My organization, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, was in its infancy, and I mean – infancy – not sleeping through the night, not eating solid foods….

I mean, we were so new, there were only two of us and we had contracting gigs on the side to actually pay our bills. 

But we had big dreams.

We were committed to educating policymakers and advocating for a country where everyone has the opportunity to use technology to live, learn, work, and thrive.

I prepared for my first FCC Lifeline meeting like I was Joe Namath – the quarterback for Gigi’s favorite football team, the Jets – getting ready for the 1969 Super Bowl.

And I am so glad I did that prep work.

Because I walked into that room and there was Gigi Sohn and a dozen other FCC staff.

I thought maybe I had been delivered to the wrong room.

But what I found out was – Gigi is so committed, so dedicated, and so serious about making change and learning everything that she can from stakeholders – that she took our newly minted organization as seriously as every other and brought in everyone (and their brother) to engage with us.

I can remember walking out of that meeting thinking – they really want to know what the reality is for local digital inclusion practitioners. That is how Gigi operates. Yes, she reads academic papers and FCC filings. But she also listens. And asks questions. So many questions. 

Like the mark she left on me that first day, Gigi has left an indelible mark on our Nation’s telecommunications policy. 

She was so immediately influential to the work of NDIA that we tried to give her an award at our first conference, Net Inclusion. FCC rules would not allow her to accept an award so she was our keynote instead. Every Net Inclusion includes attendees going on-site visits to learn firsthand from digital inclusion programs. At that first Net Inclusion, Gigi joined the site visits. I was so new to this work that I had no idea I should have made sure Gigi was on the bus. But me being green didn’t matter. She got herself on that bus. 

At the FCC, she played a pivotal role in the modernization of critical initiatives like E-Rate and  Lifeline, – all instrumental in providing broadband access to schools, libraries, and underserved communities. 

For over three decades, Gigi Sohn has been at the forefront of the battle to ensure that modern communications networks are accessible to all.

And her advocacy has embodied the core principles upon which the FCC bases its decisions—the pursuit of the public interest. 

As the founder of Public Knowledge – a public interest advocacy organization dedicated to a world where all people can use the internet and technology to realize their full potential, create authentic communities, and hold the powerful accountable – Gigi brought together parties from diverse backgrounds to address critical technology and broadband policy issues.

Her pragmatic approach to policy making, coupled with her willingness to engage with stakeholders across the ideological spectrum, has led to significant policy changes and advancements in the field of communications and technology.

As a public advocate, she advised Congress on the Emergency Broadband Benefit – for low-income households and those who lost jobs during the pandemic. She then advised Congress on how to extend the benefit in what ultimately became the universally successful Affordable Connectivity Program. She helped promote and advise on the Bipartisan effort that became the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act resulting in billions to deploy broadband networks across the U.S. and fund digital inclusion programs. Now she’s gone on to hold the FCC and NTIA accountable to ensure the implementation of BEAD meets the moment and accomplishes the Administration’s goal of bringing the internet to all.

And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Gigi’s deep commitment to erasing inequities, especially in the digital world, and her commitment to public service are deeply rooted in her personal experiences and values. A Broadcasting Law course in her sophomore year at Boston University changed her life. It’s where Gigi became fascinated with the power of communications networks to inform public discourse and promote democratic values. I’ve heard her say it awakened her to the important role the government can play in ensuring that all voices are heard.

You may not know this, but President Biden nominated Gigi to the Federal Communications Commission on October 26, 2021.

For 16 long and exhausting months, Gigi fought cable and media lobbyists and dark money political groups who created falsehoods, and manufactured controversies to distort her record and block her nomination. 

Why did she fight for so long? Because she is a bad-ass? 

Yes. And, because she believed deeply that regulated entities shouldn’t choose their regulator. Her experience was undemocratic, unfair, frustrating and beyond exhausting.

In the end, the unrelenting and very personal attacks took their toll, and Gigi withdrew her FCC nomination nearly a year ago today.

For five more months, the FCC was evenly split, 2-2. 

As Gigi said in her withdrawal statement, a deadlocked FCC means – “broadband will be more expensive for lack of competition, minority and underrepresented voices will be marginalized, and your private information will continue to be used and sold at the whim of your broadband provider.”

Leaving all of us, the American people, the real losers.

Some people get knocked down and stay down – but not Gigi. She could have headed off for a more pleasant and lucrative work environment. But she didn’t. 

Just weeks after ending what she described as an “enormously frustrating” 16-month battle, Gigi announced that she was joining the American Association for Public Broadband as its first executive director. 

Going back to her roots as a public advocate, she’s now traveling the country to make the case for states to fund – and communities to choose – public broadband and oppose barriers to local choice. 

And she didn’t stop there. She is also guiding the Affordable Broadband Campaign, a collaborative effort urging Congress and the FCC to find a permanent solution to affordable broadband.

March is Women’s history month, and we spend the month honoring our heroes – Maya Angelou said – “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”

Gigi Sohn is both a public advocate hero and an unparalleled success.

Since that first audience with Gigi nine years ago, I have returned to her countless times to share information from NDIA’s affiliates, to request her advice, maybe even to scheme. 

Fighting for digital equity is not glamorous. Sometimes it is really really hard. Gigi, your resilience is an inspiration. To me and countless others.

Congratulations, Gigi, on this well-deserved recognition and thank you for your incredible contributions to the cause of digital equity. 

May your legacy inspire us all to continue the pursuit of a more equitable and connected world.