FCC Votes to Advance Bid to Restore Net Neutrality
WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission voted on Thursday to proceed with a proposal to restore net neutrality and at the same time, potentially, broaden the agency’s reach.
The 3-2 party-line vote — with all Democratic commissioners voting in favor of the proposal — was the first step in what is expected to be a monthslong process that was kicked off by FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel during a press conference at the National Press Club in September.
As previously reported in The Well News, Rosenworcel said at the time that she decided to restart the debate over net neutrality after the coronavirus pandemic illustrated the need for a “free and open internet” and her agency is exercising its authority to ensure that broadband is available to all.
“The pandemic … made crystal clear that broadband is no longer just ‘nice to have,’” she said at the time. “It’s not a luxury. It is a necessity … the essential infrastructure for modern life.”
“No one can have a fair shot at 21st century success” without “fast, open and fair” access to the internet, she said.
For those who need a refresher, the concept of net neutrality is based on the premise that internet service providers, also called ISPs, shouldn’t favor or discriminate against some websites or services over others.
Historically, ISPs, a group that includes both cable and phone companies, have opposed net neutrality and fought tooth and nail to prevent it from becoming public policy.
In 2015, after 10 years of policymaking at the FCC, and multiple rounds of litigation, the agency barred ISPs from blocking or slowing access to internet sites or creating paid “fast lanes” for preferred services.
During the Obama administration, the broadband industry lost its legal bid to stop the regulations, but the Trump-era FCC overturned them.
An appeals court largely upheld the Trump administration’s decision in October 2019.
Rosenworcel, who at the time was one of two Democrats on the commission, assailed the move, saying the agency had abdicated its authority and rejected a policy “supported by 80% of Americans.”
“Maybe you remember it,” she said to her National Press Club audience. “People lit up our phone lines, clogged our email inboxes and jammed our online comment system to express their disapproval.
“Despite this overwhelming opposition from the public, the FCC repealed net neutrality [anyway]. In fact, the FCC’s actions were so extreme, the U.S. Senate voted to restore the agency’s open internet protections,” she continued.
“But when it came to net neutrality, the FCC was on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law and the wrong side of the American public,” Rosenworcel said.
If the FCC does indeed successfully restore net neutrality, the move could ultimately enable the agency to categorize high-speed internet as a utility, and regulate it like water or electricity.
But that’s a big if. Already telecommunications companies and Republicans on Capitol Hill are lining up to fight the proposal, which they contend would place an onerous burden on broadband providers.
On Tuesday, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chair Bob Latta, R-Ohio, led a letter to Rosenworcel that characterized her proposal as “heavy-handed, utility-style regulation” that is “not meant for today’s broadband market.”
The letter was also signed by every Republican member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
They contend that the United States’ broadband networks “have thrived under the current light-touch regulatory framework.
“Investment in our networks has reached record highs, giving consumers faster speeds and lower prices,” the letter’s signers said. “Indeed, since 2017, the cost of broadband (adjusted for inflation) has fallen while prices for electricity, water and sewage have grown four to five times faster than prices for broadband. And these networks perform remarkably well, as shown during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When work, school and staying connected with loved ones moved online, traffic over our broadband networks spiked — reaching over 27% more than pre-pandemic levels,” they continued. “American broadband networks withstood this increased traffic without interruption.
“This is unlike what happened in Europe, where heavy-handed regulations, similar to those you now propose, meant that networks could not bear the increased use, causing regulators to ask sites like Netflix and YouTube to degrade and throttle their service,” they wrote.
The Republican lawmakers noted that when the Communications Act of 1934 was passed and ultimately signed into law, it was intended to address the fact that the nation’s telephone market was dominated by one company.
“In contrast, today’s broadband market is increasingly competitive — there is competition among different providers offering service via a variety of technologies,” the letter writers said. “Further, your decision to forebear from 27 provisions in Title II and over 700 regulations underscores that the Title II regime is not appropriate for broadband.
“You would not need to perform these legal gymnastics to make Title II work if Congress meant for it to apply,” they said. “It clearly did not, as broadband service did not exist in its current form in 1934 or 1996, the last time the Communications Act was comprehensively updated.
“Forbearance also raises its own concerns because it is temporary. A future FCC could reverse this forbearance, exposing broadband providers to these burdensome regulations,” the letter writers added.
USTelecom, the trade group representing companies like AT&T and Verizon, also weighed in on the matter in a letter sent to the House and Senate leadership of the Intelligence, Homeland Security and Armed Services Committees.
In that letter, Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of USTelecom, asked the lawmakers “to pay special attention to the FCC’s mission creep into the cybersecurity space as it will lead to confusion and conflicts over which committee and agency has jurisdiction in specific cyber-related matters.
“This will create legal and regulatory uncertainty, hampering effective national security oversight and cooperation. It could also lead to redundancy and fragmentation of efforts, making it harder to coordinate and implement a cohesive security strategy and respond quickly to emerging threats,” Spalter said.