FCC Will Tackle Digital Discrimination and Equal Access to Broadband This November





Man on laptop in coffee shop

Digital discrimination, or “digital redlining,” is a practice where broadband providers focus on offering service in more affluent areas at the expense of poor, more diverse communities. The Federal Communications Commission aims to stop this with its latest proposed rule. 

Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel raised the issue at the 41st Annual Everett C. Parker Ethics in Telecommunications Lectures on Tuesday morning. The proposed measures are intended to prevent discrimination to access broadband services based on income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, and national origin, and will be discussed at the agency’s next open meeting on November 15. 

“We recognize that the ultimate goal of this proceeding is to facilitate equal access to broadband just as the law says,” said Rosenworcel.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Act mandates the FCC take steps to guarantee all Americans have equal access to broadband services without discrimination. The legislation opens application windows for $65 billion in grant money to build and upgrade roads, bridges, airports, and railways and expand access to affordable high-speed internet to more than 30 million people living in a digital drought.

These rules, if adopted, will establish a balanced framework to ensure equal access to broadband by preventing digital discrimination. They consider several technical and economic obstacles preventing full internet equality, focusing on business policies that inhibit equal access without valid cause.

The rules look beyond the needs of the broadband industry to consider the entire picture, including how decisions affect consumers. Some policies can create a discriminatory atmosphere without intention, causing different communities to receive different access to broadband services.

Under the proposed rules, “digital discrimination of access” would be defined as “Policies or practices, not justified by genuine issues of technical or economic feasibility, that (1) differentially impact consumers’ access to broadband internet access service based on their income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin, or (2) are intended to have such differential impact.” The FCC will consider arguments on a case-by-case basis.

If accepted, the FCC can protect consumers by:

  • Directly addressing companies’ policies and practices if they differentially impact consumers’ access to broadband internet access service or intend to do so
  • Apply these protections to ensure communities see equitable broadband deployment, network upgrades, and maintenance
  • Investigate possible instances of discrimination of broadband access, work to solve and – when necessary – penalize companies for failing to meet the obligations defined in the rules
  • Review consumer complaints of digital discrimination through an improved complaint portal
  • Help protect both current and prospective subscribers to a broadband internet service

The FCC will release a public draft of the final rules on October 25.

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