FCC Moves Forward With Net Neutrality Proposal

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday voted to move forward with a proposal to reinstate the Obama-era net neutrality rules, which prohibited carriers from blocking or throttling traffic and from charging higher fees for prioritized delivery.

“If the proposals are adopted ... the FCC would once again be permitted to protect internet openness and competition, protect broadband networks from national security threats, and address public safety needs like internet outages,” the agency stated.

The Commission split on party lines, with three FCC Democrats voting in favor of the proposal, and two Republicans voted against it.

Others in Washington were also divided on party lines.

Senator Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) tweeted Thursday that the FCC's move was “a great step.”

Senators Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), likewise praised the agency.

The COVID-19 pandemic clearly demonstrated that broadband -- like electricity and water -- isn’t a luxury, it’s essential infrastructure,” they stated, adding that the proposed rules “will protect the free and open internet, create a level playing field for all businesses, and help ensure a just broadband future.”

Republicans on Capitol Hill feel differently. Just this week, a group of GOP House members argued to FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel that any regulation of broadband should be left to Congress; Senate Republicans have also weighed in against the proposal.

Despite the partisan divide in D.C., members of the public -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- say they support net neutrality regulations. A University of Maryland poll conducted last year found that 65% of Republicans and 82% of Democrats want to bring back the Obama-era broadband rules.

Those rules were passed in 2015, but repealed during the Trump administration. Former chairman Ajit Pai, who shepherded the repeal, said the regulations were too heavy-handed. 

Consumer advocacy groups opposed the revocation, arguing that the rules were needed to prevent carriers from censoring websites, or otherwise limiting subscribers' ability to access streaming video, search engines and other online services.

As with the 2015 order, the proposal that advanced Thursday includes a key -- and highly contested -- provision reclassifying broadband as a “telecommunications” service, regulated under Title II of the Communications Act. Currently broadband is considered an “information” service, subject to Title I.

That reclassification is controversial because Title II gives the FCC authority to impose sweeping rules -- including ones regulating rates. But without Title II, the FCC lacks the ability to impose any common carrier restrictions on broadband -- even by banning blocking or throttling.

“Without Title II authority, no federal agency can effectively monitor or help with broadband outages that threaten jobs, education, health, and safety,” the FCC stated Thursday.

FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel has said the agency won't impose rate regulation or other rules it considers “burdensome."

Not surprisingly, broadband providers -- which have long opposed net neutrality regulations -- weren't thrilled by the agency's decision to move forward.

“Title II is, at its heart, a regulatory power grab,” Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of the industry group USTelecom, stated. “Mandating crushing regulatory hurdles will only delay rather than deliver the promise of universal connectivity.”

The business group Chamber of Commerce also weighed in against the proposed restrictions, arguing in a letter to the FCC that it lacks the authority to issue regulations on major policy questions.

The agency will accept comments from the public about the proposed rules before voting on whether to adopt them.

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