12 Days of Broadband: Net Neutrality Is the Issue That Never Dies

It's been 11 years since Verizon filed arguments against the FCC in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

12 Days of Broadband: Net Neutrality Is the Issue That Never Dies
Illustration by DALL-E

January 2, 2024 – The net neutrality debate was alive and well in 2023, more than 11 years since Verizon filed arguments against the Federal Communications Commission before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in July 2012 in a partisan issue that has dominated telecom politics for more than a decade.

In the latest twist in the saga, the FCC proposed in October 2023 to reclassify

broadband internet as a telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act.

If ultimately approved, the move would give the FCC broader authority over broadband providers. Crucially, the commission would be able to require that internet traffic is not sped up or slowed down artificially, meaning businesses could not pay providers for preferential treatment.

The issue is a contentious one at the FCC, and the commission can only take it up now that Democrats have a 3-2 majority, after several years of a 2-2 agency. Along with the strong digital discrimination rules adopted in November, it’s part of a Democratic effort to expand regulatory oversight of broadband as it becomes more essential for daily life.

Republicans in Congress and at the FCC oppose this, arguing it makes providers less likely to invest in new infrastructure. 

Controversy over Title II Reclassification

Title II brings a host of other regulatory powers, but the commission is proposing to abstain from wielding more than two dozen of the most onerous provisions on broadband providers if the service is recategorized. Those include explicit rate regulation and immediate Universal Service Fund contribution.

Net neutrality has been a longstanding goal of the Biden administration and Democratic FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, who referenced it in a letter to lawmakers after being confirmed as chairwoman in December 2021. 

“You’re dealing with the most central infrastructure in the digital age. Come on, it’s time for a national policy,” Rosenworcel said before voting in favor of the proposal at the commission’s October open meeting. It would pass 3-2 along party lines, putting the rules up for public comment.

That set the commission up for an earful: more than 40,000 comments on the proposed net neutrality rules have since been filed with the agency. Reply comments on the proposal are due January 17, 2024.

The broadband industry is largely opposed to the move. AT&T and T-Mobile, in addition to trade groups and conservative think tanks, filed comments arguing that the practices net neutrality rules are designed to combat are not widespread. They say using Title II authority to enforce net neutrality principles would stifle investment in broadband, both by opening providers up to sanctions for previously legal conduct and by introducing the potential for future commissions to pick up the 27 Title II provisions the FCC is choosing to forego.

“No ISP takes that assurance seriously,” AT&T said of the commission’s proposal not to regulate broadband prices as part of the rulemaking.

Advocacy groups like Public Knowledge argued the anticompetitive practices net neutrality rules aim to prevent are only uncommon because states like California enacted their own net neutrality laws.They said the move would protect consumers who depend on reliable and consistent internet access.

Broadband “is not a luxury but a necessity for education, communication, and participation in the economy,” the group said. “The FCC’s proposed action will restore its ability to oversee this essential service.”

This was expected to some degree. The Trump-era FCC received comments from many of the same players in 2017 when it repealed net neutrality rules – substantially similar to the 2023 proposal – set up by the 2015 commission under Obama. 

A prolonged nomination to break a deadlock

The commission was unable to move on the issue until this year because Democrats lacked a majority. President Joe Biden first nominated net neutrality advocate Gigi Sohn, a former FCC staffer and co-founder of Public Knowledge, to the FCC’s vacant fifth seat in 2021, but her nomination turned into a prolonged political fight

Republican senators hung on her position on the board of a nonprofit streaming service that was shut down after large telecoms sued for copyright infringement. They alleged Sohn would be unable to remain impartial on matters related to broadcasting and copyright – even after she moved to recuse herself from related issues.

Votes repeatedly stalled along party lines before Sohn withdrew her name from consideration in March of this year, citing campaigns against her nomination by telecom lobbyists.

“The unrelenting, dishonest and cruel attacks on my character and my career as an advocate for the public interest have taken an enormous toll on me and my family,” she said in a statement announcing her withdrawal.

Commissioner Anna Gomez had a comparably smooth nomination process. Biden announced her nomination in May after Sohn stepped back and the Senate voted to approve her four months later, finally giving Democrats a 3-2 majority on the FCC. Rosenworcel wasted no time taking advantage of the new math, announcing her intention to reinstate net neutrality rules one day after Gomez was sworn in as a commissioner in September.

Following the October vote to move forward with the proposal, Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr pointed out a potential legal hurdle to reclassifying broadband as a Title II service this time around. The Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority has been less deferential to agencies’ interpretation of the law, and might consider the reclassification too significant a move for an agency to make without explicit approval from Congress.

Experts disagree on how likely a Supreme Court intervention is, as the FCC’s previous reclassifications of services under the Communications Act – both the 2015 net neutrality rules and a classification of DSL under Title II in 1998 – have passed legal muster.

At a House oversight hearing in November, Republican Commissioner Nathan Simington asked Congress to “put an end to the continued whipsawing of industry over the Title II fight” by passing new legislation governing the internet ecosystem. A Democratic bill that would codify broadband as a Title II service stalled after being introduced in both the House and Senate last summer.

See “The Twelve Days of Broadband” on Broadband Breakfast

Popular Tags