Agriculture Dept. Net-Neutrality Move Draws Mixed Reaction On Capitol Hill

A Department of Agriculture policy that could encourage rural broadband providers to follow net-neutrality rules is drawing praise from some Senate Democrats, but criticism from Senate Republicans.

The agency, which will soon begin distributing up to $1.15 billion in loans and grants to rural broadband providers, recently said it will give preferential treatment to applicants that promise to follow the Federal Communications Commission's former net-neutrality rules.

Those rules broadly include prohibitions on blocking or throttling content, and on charging higher fees for prioritized delivery.

The FCC passed the regulations in 2015, but voted to repeal them two years later, under the leadership of former chair Ajit Pai. He called the former rules “heavy handed” and said they depressed investment.

But net neutrality proponents argue the rules are necessary to prevent broadband providers from limiting consumers' ability to access streaming video, search engines and other online material.

President Joe Biden, who supports net neutrality rules, in July signed an executive order encouraging the FCC to reinstate the prior regulations.

Last week, Senator John Thune (R-South Dakota) and 12 other Senate Republicans urged Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to reverse the decision to consider companies' net-neutrality promises when awarding funds.

“As you know, 'net neutrality' restrictions have been subject to much debate in Congress and at the Federal Communications Commission,” the lawmakers said in a letter to Vilsack. “Any effort to impose unnecessary 'net neutrality' restrictions would be dangerous to our nation's dynamic broadband economy and threaten future investments in broadband infrastructure.”

On Tuesday, Senators Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), wrote to Vilsack to urge him to resist pressure to change course.

“In evaluating applications for funding, the Department astutely decided that internet service providers that commit to following net neutrality would receive a leg up in their review,” they said in a letter to him. “We wholeheartedly agree with your approach and hope other agencies will follow your excellent example.”

The lawmakers added that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the need for net neutrality.

“The rise of remote work has pushed more of the global economy online. Full participation in civic and democratic processes increasingly requires online engagement,” the lawmakers wrote. “These trends have made the need for strong net neutrality protections even more urgent, as reliance on the internet for education, health care, commerce, and community work has skyrocketed.”

The department is expected to begin accepting broadband providers' applications for funds later this month.

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