The Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday voted to approve a set of rules that prevent digital discrimination, or any buildout and offering of broadband services that unfairly excludes people by income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin.
The rules were part of a mandate set in the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, President Joe Biden’s $28.1 billion bill intended to improve everything from highways to access to high-speed internet. The rule passed 3-2 along party lines. They empower the FCC to investigate both instances of overt discrimination and conduct that produces a “discriminatory effect,” work with companies to solve the problems and potentially penalize them for violating the rules.
The intent of the rules is to ensure equal access to broadband and eliminate “digital redlining,” a practice in which poorer communities — often of color — see fewer investments from internet service providers. As a result, they’ll often have access to slower or even no access to the internet. Digital redlining is seen as one of the hurdles to closing the broadband gap in the U.S.
But the broadband providers have already questioned the “discriminatory effect” aspect of the proposal, which they argue is too broad and vague. The rule could see a legal challenge from broadband trade groups.
“Regretfully, the FCC appears to have followed through with its proposal to implement this well-intentioned provision by adopting a poorly designed set of rules that will fundamentally undermine its own stated purpose,” said Grant Spellmayer, CEO of ACA Connect, a trade group that represents smaller internet providers. “These rules will deter investment, innovation, and deployment for reasons that do little to address any sort of discrimination at the expense of the precise consumers they intend to help.”
The FCC said that genuine reasons of technical and economic feasibility would still be valid justification for why it may not be possible to give everyone access to a network.
On the other side, consumer advocacy group Free Press lauded the move.
“We welcome today’s order to combat discrimination in the broadband market,” said Free Press Director Joshua Stager. “There is mounting evidence that low-income families and people of color are more likely to live in monopoly service areas that have just one high-speed internet provider. This lack of competition can lead to lower-quality networks, poor service and higher prices.”
FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said having strong rules in place were necessary when ensuring equal access.
“These rules are strong,” she said during the FCC meeting today. “When you consider Congress explicitly directed us to ‘prevent’ and ‘eliminate’ digital discrimination of access, they had better be. But I would also argue that they are fair and reasonable.”