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Federal Communications Commission Vote on Net Neutrality Reprises Deep Partisan Divisions



Screenshot from the FCC October meeting

October 27, 2020 — Tensions ran high during the Federal Communications Commission’s October meeting on Tuesday, as the agency’s five commissioners were forced to take a defining partisan vote in response to the D.C. Court of Appeals remand on the agency’s December 2017 repeal of net neutrality rules.

In 2017, the Republican-led Trump FCC ended less than three years of what some have criticized as utility-style regulation of the internet. Under Chairman Ajit Pai, the agency returned broadband internet access service to its long-standing classification as an information service under Title I of the Communications Act.

The circuit court upheld the vast majority of the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, but remanded three discrete issues for further consideration. These were its impact upon public safety, pole attachments, and universal service support for low income consumers through the Lifeline Program.

See “D.C. Circuit’s Decision in Net Neutrality Case Likely to Open New Fronts of Attack Against FCC,” Broadband Breakfast, October 7, 2019

During Tuesday’s meeting, the commissioners voted 3-2 on party lines to conclude that there was no basis to alter the agency’s conclusions from 2017.

“Competition has increased,” said Commissioner Brendan Carr, “with the percentage of Americans with more than two options for high-speed internet increasing by 52 percent, all while prices have been decreasing.”

Yet they largely avoided mention of the issues surrounding utility pole attachments and the Lifeline program, Republican commissioners talked about how different nations’ internet networks are holding up in comparison to the United States. They also joked about potentially having to pay for social media posts.

Carr said that the networks of counties that have taken a heavier or utility-style approach to regulating the internet have “strained to maintain quality and speed” throughout the global pandemic, referencing when European Union officials, in March, asked Netflix to reduce its video streaming quality to reduce network strain.

Chairman Ajit Pai reverted to emotional appeal, saying his family received violent death threats following the 2017 repeal Opponents of his ”internet freedom” order waged, he said, “one of the most dishonest scare campaigns ever seen.”

Pai maintained that the internet economy is as good as ever, with internet speeds and coverage readily increasing under his leadership.

Democrats say FCC data shows broadband markets are not competitive

Democratic Commissioners criticized the GOP members for doubling down on the issue in the midst of the pandemic. They urged greater regulation of broadband services.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel disagreed with the idea that the 2017 net neutrality repeal aided consumers. “FCC data shows that our broadband markets are not competitive. Many in this country have no choice in broadband providers,” said Rosenworcel, adding that “this administration is suing states that try to close the broadband void created when the FCC stepped out.”

She called today’s vote an opportunity for the agency to step back in, saying the rollback of net neutrality does not get the country any closer to broadband for all. Rosenworcel also called for broadband to be regulated similarly to utilities, such as water and electricity.

Commissioner Geoffrey Starks criticized Carr and Pai’s arguments, saying that the successes of American networks are not due to changes on net neutrality. He further argued about negative outcomes for the FCC’s Lifeline Program because of reduced FCC authority to oversee ISPs.

“When the FCC added broadband access to Lifeline it was based under its Title II authority,” he said, adding “now with this strained legal reasoning the majority would rather disconnect over 8 million Lifeline subscribers, rather than subject ISPs to any FCC oversight.”

Starks said that of nearly 300 broadband plans in 28 cities across the world, the United States has the highest average monthly prices for home broadband.

“30 percent of Black, Latinx, and other non-white households earning less than $30,000 a year have missed at least one internet bill since the pandemic,” Starks said.

Referencing the Chairman’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge, Starks said “While I’m glad internet service providers pledged not to disconnect consumers, the order has removed the FCC’s ability to enforce this voluntary commitment. The pledge ended five months ago. As our country faces historic levels of unemployment and economic distress, the FCC has no authority to prevent providers from disconnecting customers who cannot pay their bills.”


Carrier Association Requests Reconsideration of FCC Decision on 911 Outage Notification

The CCA says the FCC order creates burdens on call providers and 911 special facilities.



Photo of CCA president and CEO Tim Donovan

WASHINGTON, March 21, 2023 – The Competitive Carriers Association is asking the Federal Communications Commission to reconsider a November decision requiring carriers to provide certain network outage notifications within 30 minutes.

The FCC order mandates that originating call providers notify 911 special facilities – such as emergency call centers called public safety answering points – of outages “no later than within 30 minutes of when the outage that potentially affects 911 service is discovered.” The order also required those providers to keep up-to-date contact information for those special facilities in areas they serve.

In a petition on Friday, the CCA is asking for the FCC to review and implement flexibility in that timing. “The significant new requirements that the Commission has imposed on carriers…are likely to be burdensome and counter-productive not only for carriers, but also 911 special facilities,” the CCA said in its application, though it continues to encourage the commission to retain the “as soon as possible” requirement.

“At a minimum, however, the Commission should start the 30-minute timer (and subsequent timers) when actual originating service provider…notification occurs from its vendor or other underlying provider,” the CCA said, adding even then carriers “would face significant difficulty assessing the outage, identifying the appropriate” public safety answering points to notify, and making the required notifications within 30 minutes.

“Therefore, it would be appropriate to deem [originating call providers] compliant if they begin notifying affected PSAPs that an outage exists within the 30- minute timeframe, and continue to notify any PSAPs that the OSPs could not reach before the expiration of the 30-minutes,” the industry association added.

The association said the problem with the decision is it doesn’t account for the “practical difficulty (if not impossibility)” of getting a vendor notification, determining which of the thousands of answering points may be affected by the outage, and making the required notification in that timeframe. It said carriers frequently don’t get outage notifications from 911 solution vendors within 30 minutes.

“The unnecessarily rigid approach in the [order] will often make compliance an impossibility, and otherwise will require carriers to spend critical time and resources on notifications to PSAPs that are not affected by outages, and will subject PSAPs to frequent notifications regarding outages that do not affect them, with limited actionable information given the short deadline,” the CCA added.

The CCA is also requesting that the commission create and maintain a centralized database with information provided by the 911 special facilities. It notes that the FCC order fails to fully take into consideration the burden its approach will place on carriers, especially smaller ones with limited resources, and PSAPs, who are “likely to experience a recurring deluge of requests for updated contact information from numerous carriers subject to this amorphous standard.”

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FCC Nominee Gigi Sohn Withdraws from Consideration

Sohn was first nominated in October 2021.



WASHINGTON, March 7, 2023 – The nominee for the fifth commissioner to the Federal Communications Commission withdrew her candidacy in a statement Tuesday, blaming “dark money political groups” for tainting her career.

“Unfortunately, the American people are the real losers here,” Gigi Sohn said in the statement. “The FCC deadlock, now over two years long, will remain so for a long time. As someone who has advocated for my entire career for affordable, accessible broadband for every American, it is ironic that the 2-2 FCC will remain sidelined at the most consequential opportunity for broadband in our lifetimes.”

Just last month, Sohn appeared before the Senate commerce committee for a third time and was lambasted by Republican members as an impartial nominee who has made controversial public statements on race and policing and who alleged gave money to members of the committee while being a nominee.

“When I accepted his nomination over sixteen months ago, I could not have imagined that legions of cable and media industry lobbyists, their bought-and-paid-for surrogates, and dark money political groups with bottomless pockets would distort my over 30-year history as a consumer advocate into an absurd caricature of blatant lies,” Sohn’s statement said. “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 appealed to the committee to hurry her to the Senate floor for votes so she can get to work on the FCC’s broadband availability map. She said in her statement that her withdrawal also means the commission won’t have the majority to adopt rules on nondiscriminatory access to broadband and to fix the Universal Service Fund programs.

Sohn was nominated for a second time by President Joe Biden in January.

“I hope the President swiftly nominates an individual who puts the American people first over all other interests,” she added in the statement. “The country deserves nothing less.”

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Broadband Mapping & Data

General Agreement on Broadband Label, But Not on Additional Disclosure Requirements

The FCC is considering additional requirements, but that could be burdensome for small providers.



Screenshot of speakers at the Federal Communications Bar Association event

WASHINGTON, February 15, 2023 — As the comment deadline approaches for the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband “nutrition label” rule, industry experts are largely supportive of the measure, although some disagree over whether the requirements go too far or not far enough.

The FCC is currently considering whether to add additional requirements — such as cybersecurity data and more comprehensive pricing information about bundled plans — to the labels, which were mandated in November and require that providers list performance metrics, cost and other facts to inform purchasers at all points of sale. Other proposed measures aim to improve accessibility by requiring non-English translations, as well as Braille or a QR code with a tactile indicator. The comment deadline is Thursday.

Further requirements could have negative impacts on both consumers and providers, argued Farhan Chughtai, senior policy counsel at broadband consulting company JSI, at a Feb. 6 Federal Communications Bar Association event.

“You don’t want to make the labels too difficult—that’s going to lead to more consumer confusion,” Chughtai said. He pointed to metrics such as network management, network reliability and cybersecurity as topics that might be “too nuanced” for the labels.

Overly complicated labels risk being treated like terms of service agreements, where many users just skip through them, Chughtai said. “Let’s focus on speed, latency, monthly usage.”

Additional requirements would place a disproportionate burden on smaller, rural providers, he added.

Chughtai also pointed to the “point of sale” disclosure requirements as a potential barrier for small providers.

“For some of the larger providers, that documentation can be automated,” he said. “But when you’re talking about a small carrier in Kentucky that has two or three people that are working, that type of communication… could be troublesome. So again, I think that the commission did strike a good balance, but when it comes to implementation, I think there’s ways to continue to refine this.”

Diana Eisner, vice president of policy and advocacy at industry association USTelecom, agreed with Chughtai, adding that both small and large providers “agree that this point of sale documentation is problematic.”

The FCC should work with industry and consumer groups to continuously fine-tune the label requirements, Chughtai said.

Debate on current version of label

“I think the commission really struck the right balance largely of making sure that consumers can see the information in a snapshot—they’re not overloaded with irrelevant information,” Eisner said.

Consumer advocates are generally excited about the label, said Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel at Consumer Reports. “I think the commission gets it mostly right,” he said.

However, Schwantes voiced concerns about the label’s scope, saying that they were intended to educate consumers in addition to serving as a comparison shopping tool.

“I’m concerned that existing consumers may never see the label unless you’re moving or you decide to change or maybe if you’re lucky enough to have a competing provider,” he said. “Based on the [FCC’s Communications Marketplace] report that came out right at the end of last year, there are still many millions of Americans who only have one choice of broadband provider.”

Schwantes noted that he and several other consumer groups attempted to address this issue by advocating for the labels’ inclusion on monthly service bills, but such a requirement failed to make it into the FCC’s mandate.

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