Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said rules that govern how internet service providers operate “are more important than ever,” as she made her case to bring back net neutrality rules.
“I believe this repeal put the FCC on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of the American public,” Rosenworcel said of the dismantling of the rules during the last administration in a speech at the National Press Club on Tuesday. “Today, we being the process to fix this.”
Rosenworcel proposed bringing back the rules that were originally crafted in 2015. She added that the FCC plans to vote on whether to move forward with the proposal on October 19 and soliciting public feedback — a key step toward turning the draft into rules. Word of her plans to talk about the rules at the event leaked out earlier in the day.
The speech officially kicks off the FCC’s bid to revive the net neutrality rules first passed by the agency in 2015 under President Barack Obama. At its core is how much authority the FCC has to regulate how internet service providers. The net neutrality rules reclassify internet service providers as “Title II” “common carrier” services, which gives the agency the power to ensure that the ISPs can’t give preferential treatment to some kinds of traffic — like video feeds from a company willing to pay extra for a “fast lane.” Supporters say the rules are necessary to ensure any company can operate on an even playing ground, but opponents say the Title II designation is overkill and too onerous for the companies.
While the original net neutrality rules survived legal challenges from the internet service providers, it only lasted a three years before a new FCC, under President Donald Trump and his new chairman, Ajit Pai, dismantled the rules in 2018. The back-and-forth state of net neutrality highlights the partisan nature of the rules, which Democrats and consumer advocates traditionally support, but Republicans and the broadband industry generally oppose.
The political pendulum has swung back to the Democrats, with Biden stressing that net neutrality was a priority. But the administration has been unable to successfully push through a fifth FCC commissioner until this month, with Anna Gomez finally winning Senate confirmation at the beginning of September. She was sworn in yesterday.
Rosenworcel didn’t waste time once she secured a 3-2 Democrat majority with the FCC commissioners.
She noted that the last few years — particularly when the public was locked down during the COVID-19 pandemic — has shown how critical equal access to internet services is for consumers. She also argued that the FCC abdicating its authority over broadband had a lot of unintended consequences. She called out the controversy around firefighters in Santa Clara, California, who found their wireless service throttled while battling wild fires, or a 45-day internet outage in the Detroit neighborhood of Hope Village, as examples where the FCC lost its authority to intervene quickly.
“The nation’s leading communications watchdog should have the muscles it needs to protect consumers,” Rosenworcel said.
The broadband industry blasted the move.
“Treating broadband as a Title II utility is a dangerous and costly solution in search of a problem,” said Jonathan Spalter, CEO of broadband trade group USTelecom. “Congress must step in on this major question and end this game of regulatory ping-pong. The future of the open, vibrant internet we now enjoy hangs in the balance.”
He called the move, “Powering up an outdated regulatory time machine to impose rules designed for a long-forgotten era,” which said would derail efforts to cover more Americans with internet access.
“Such utility-style regulations will inhibit our members’ investment to the detriment of their subscribers,” said Grant Spellmeyer, CEO of ACA Connect, which represents smaller and mid-sized ISPs. “These regulations will also give Big Tech platforms even greater ability to leverage smaller broadband providers and their subscribers.”
Meredith Atwell Baker, CEO of CTIA, the trade group representing the wireless carriers, urged Congress to establish permanent rules rather than “the uncertainty created by today’s FCC announcement.”
In addressing the criticism that the regulation is too overbearing, she noted that the proposed rules removes 26 provisions of Title II and more than than 700 FCC rules that would threaten network investment. She also said that the rules are not an attempt by the agency to control rates.
She also made the argument that having a consistent national standard for what net neutrality is will be good for the broadband industry. After the FCC struck down the net neutrality rules, various states like California and Washington crafted their own regulations — some even going further than the FCC. The patchwork of different rules has made staying in compliance with the different rules complicated for some providers, particularly those that operate in many parts of the country.
But as with the actions taken by the last two FCC regimes, the introduction of a plan to bring back net neutrality will take years to sort out, and even more years to deal with in the courts. Two lawyers from the Obama administration, former Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. and former acting Solicitor General Ian Heath Gershengorn, argued in a Bloomberg Law op-ed that the FCC shouldn’t take this action now because the current make-up of the Supreme Court, which has a conservative majority, would likely spell doom for any new proposed rules.
Regardless of those challenges, Rosenworcel and the FCC are dead-set to give it a shot, but are trying to approach it with an open mind.
“I promise you, I will do a lot of listening,” she said.