COVID-19 Crisis Shows Need For Net Neutrality Rules, Advocates Say

The COVID-19 pandemic shows why the Federal Communications Commission should reinstate the Obama-era net neutrality framework, advocacy groups say in a new filing with the agency.

“Even if not traditionally thought of as a matter of public safety, one of the best things the FCC can do in regard to public safety right now is help maintain and provide internet service to those staying home,”  Public Knowledge, Access Humboldt, Access Now and the National Hispanic Media Coalition argue in comments filed Monday. “Without internet access it is virtually impossible for adults to telework, children to keep up with their classes via e-learning, and for people to try and stay healthy with telehealth.”

The groups' filing comes in response to the FCC's call for comments about the impact of its decision to repeal the Obama-era net neutrality rules. The FCC issued the call in February, after a federal appellate court largely upheld the repeal, but directed the agency to examine its affect on public safety, the Lifeline program (which subsidizes broadband) and regulations regarding utility poles.

During the Obama era, the FCC classified broadband as a utility service, and imposed some common carrier rules -- including regulations prohibiting broadband providers from blocking or throttling online traffic, and from charging companies higher fees for prioritized delivery.

In 2017, after a change in administration, the agency reversed course. It issued a new order that reclassified broadband as an “information” service, and revoked the prohibitions against blocking or throttling traffic, and against paid prioritization.

Current FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who shepherded the repeal, says the prior regime was “heavy handed” and depressed investment. But net neutrality advocates say the Obama-era rules are necessary to prevent broadband providers from limiting peope's ability to access streaming video, search engines and other online services and content.

A coalition of tech companies, consumer advocacy groups, state attorneys general and city officials challenged the repeal in court. Among other arguments, the attorneys general and city officials said the FCC didn't take into account that the repeal could harm public safety. They pointed to Verizon's decision to slow down service to firefighters battling blazes in California last summer.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit largely upheld the FCC's revocation, but returned the matter to the agency with instructions to examine the implications of the repeal.

Public Knowledge and the other organizations argue in their new filing that the FCC can't adequately police internet service providers during the current health crisis without first reclassifying broadband as a utility, regulated under “Title II” of the Communications Act.

“Without the tools afforded to the FCC via Title II, the FCC lacks the ability to respond to unexpected contingencies, ensure continuous service to users, gather the data it needs about network performance, or even to ensure that smaller ISPs can continue to interconnect with the broader network despite temporary liquidity problems," the groups write.

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