The US Federal Communications Commission is taking steps to restore net neutrality rules that would regulate broadband providers like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast. On Tuesday, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said the rules are needed to ensure that internet access is fast, open and fair.
The pandemic "made crystal clear that broadband is no longer just nice to have. It's need to have. For everyone, everywhere," Rosenworcel said during a press conference. "It is essential infrastructure for modern life. No one without it has a fair shot at 21st century success."
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The proposed rules are similar to ones adopted by the commission in 2015 and would reestablish the FCC's authority to regulate broadband under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 -- essentially treating broadband like a public utility next to water or power. Rosenworcel said the proposed rules would prevent broadband providers from "engaging in blocking, throttling and paid prioritization," adding that there would also be a general rule that prohibits providers from unreasonably restricting consumers from "going where they want and doing what they want on the internet."
The FCC released a fact sheet on the proposed rules on Tuesday and said the full text would be released Thursday. The FCC plans to vote in October on whether to advance the draft rules by soliciting comments and feedback, a process that can take several months.
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What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality is the principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally, whether you're sending emails, shopping online or streaming movies. It also means broadband providers can't favor their own content over competitors' services.
The fight over net neutrality is basically about deciding who, if anyone, gets to regulate the internet and ensure that broadband providers don't abuse their role as gatekeepers.
What happened to the previous net neutrality rules?
Net neutrality regulations have spent the last decade on a roller coaster ride, being approved and repealed depending on the political party in power.
In 2015, the FCC adopted net neutrality rules that classified broadband as a Title II service under the Communications Act of 1934. The Obama-era regulation treated broadband like a public utility and gave the FCC oversight.
In 2017, a Republican-led FCC repealed the federal net neutrality rules, with then-Chairman Ajit Pai calling the regulations "heavy-handed."
Since then, Democratic lawmakers have tried a handful of times to revive net neutrality, but so far they've been unsuccessful.
On Monday, Democrat Anna Gomez was sworn in as a commissioner of FCC after being confirmed by the Senate earlier this month. This broke a 2-2 deadlock at the commission, opening the door for the latest attempt to reinstate net neutrality rules.
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What are the arguments against net neutrality?
Supporters of net neutrality say the rules are necessary to ensure that the internet is fast, open and fair, and that broadband companies don't take advantage of their power over the infrastructure that delivers content via the internet to our phones, computers and TVs.
Broadband providers and lawmakers opposed to net neutrality have argued that the 2015 rules gave the FCC too much power and stifled investment. They've also said that providers haven't actually engaged in the practices the rules aim to prevent.
AT&T and Comcast declined to comment on the FCC's plan to reinstate net neutrality rules. Verizon didn't respond.
Trade groups representing the broadband and wireless industries pushed back on the FCC's plan, saying that providers are already committed to an open internet.
"Wireless providers each year offer consumers faster speeds and greater choice for home and mobile broadband, over more reliable and open networks, at prices that are dramatically lower than just a few years ago," said CTIA President Meredith Baker in a statement on Tuesday. "These results are due in part to a regulatory framework that fosters investment, spurs innovation, creates jobs, and drives economic growth. Rather than the regulatory uncertainty created by today's FCC announcement, we urge Congress to establish permanent rules to maintain a pro-consumer framework that allows wireless services to flourish and continues to drive new levels of 5G innovation and investment."
Industry group USTelecom shared a similar statement, with President Jonathan Spalter saying that treating broadband "as a Title II utility is a dangerous and costly solution in search of a problem."
When would new rules kick in?
It's going to be a long process. The FCC will vote Oct. 19 on whether to advance the draft rules. If it gets at least three votes to move forward, that'll kick off the rulemaking process, which includes a lengthy comments and replies period that may last into the start of 2024.
A final set of rules could then be voted on in the months following. Even if the FCC did vote then to reinstate net neutrality regulations, the rules could face lawsuits that would delay them from taking effect.