As expected, the commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission voted along party lines to move forward with a plan to largely restore Obama-era net neutrality protections. All three of the agency's Democratic commissioners voted in favor of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (PDF), with the two Republican commissioners dissenting.
FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, who has long supported net neutrality rules, last month announced a proposal to reclassify fixed broadband as an essential communications service under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. It also aims to reclassify mobile broadband as a commercial mobile service.
If broadband is reclassified in this way, the FCC would have greater scope to regulate it in a similar way to how water, power and phone services are overseen. As such, it would have more leeway to re-establish net neutrality rules.
Supporters believe that net neutrality protections are fundamental to an open and equitable internet. When such rules are in place, internet service providers have to provide users with access to every site, content and app at the same speeds and conditions. They can't block or give preference to any content and they're not allowed to, for instance, charge video streaming streaming services for faster service.
"The proposed net neutrality rules will ensure that all viewpoints, including those with which I disagree, are heard," Commissioner Anna Gomez, who was sworn in as the panel's third Democratic member in September, said ahead of the vote. "Moreso, these principles protect consumers while also maintaining a healthy, competitive broadband internet ecosystem. Because we know that competition is required for access to a healthy, open internet that is accessible to all."
On the other hand, critics say that net neutrality rules are unnecessary. "Since the FCC’s 2017 decision to return the Internet to the same successful and bipartisan regulatory framework under which it thrived for decades, broadband speeds in the U.S. have increased, prices are down, competition has intensified, and record-breaking new broadband builds have brought millions of Americans across the digital divide," Brendan Carr, the senior Republican on the FCC, said in a statement. "The Internet is not broken and the FCC does not need Title II to fix it. I would encourage the agency to reverse course and focus on the important issues that Congress has authorized the FCC to advance."
Restoring previous net neutrality rules (which the Trump administration overturned in 2017) has been part of President Joe Biden's agenda for several years. However, until Gomez was sworn in, the FCC was deadlocked, leaving that goal in limbo until now.
The FCC suggests that reclassification will grant it more authority to "safeguard national security, advance public safety, protect consumers and facilitate broadband deployment." In addition, the agency wants to "reestablish a uniform, national regulatory approach to protect the open internet" and stop ISPs from "engaging in practices harmful to consumers."
The FCC will now seek comment on the proposal with members of the public and stakeholders (such as ISPs) having the chance to weigh in on the agency's plan. After reviewing and possibly implementing feedback, the FCC is then expected to issue a final rule on the reclassification of broadband internet access. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out, this means net neutrality protections could be restored as soon as next spring.
It's still not a sure thing that net neutrality protections will return, however. The implementation of revived rules could face legal challenges from the telecom industry. It may also take quite some time for the FCC to carry out the rulemaking process, which may complicate matters given that we're going into a presidental election year.
Nevertheless, net neutrality is a major priority for the fully staffed commission under Rosenworcel. “We’re laserlike focused on getting this rulemaking process started, then we're going to review the record, and my hope is we'll be able to move to order," the FCC chair told The Washington Post.