Biden Urged To Appoint FCC Commissioner To Speed Net Neutrality Return

Campaign groups have urged the US President Joe Biden to act with ‘urgency’ to nominate a fifth commissioner to ensure a fully functional Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The letter addressed to President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris comes from more than 50 advocacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, Communications Workers of America, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Mozilla, and OpenMedia.

The letter urges the US leadership to nominate a candidate to fill an open seat on the FCC, so it can focus on “delivering open, affordable and reliable high-speed broadband to every home,” as well as “reinstate strong net neutrality protections.”

Net neutrality

This is not the first time that the US leadership has been urged to reinstate net neutrality protections, done away with under the leadership of former US President Donald Trump.

In March this year, tech firms led by Mozilla published an open letter to the FCC, urging the US regulator to urgently reinstate net neutrality rules in America.

Mozilla, along with other big name tech firms in July 2017 had already made clear their opposition to Trump’s reversal of Obama’s net neutrality rules.

In the letter to the US leadership, the campaigners acknowledged the hurdles posed by the Coronavirus pandemic and it “commend the administration on its aim to ensure everyone has affordable access to high-speed internet, as well as the work it has undertaken to meet this critical goal.”

“Time and again, your administration has demonstrated a deep understanding that broadband access is critical to education, work, health and well being, and can literally be a matter of life and death,” said the letter.

“Yet, as we move toward the second half of 2021 with no nomination for the fifth and final commissioner, the Federal Communications Commission remains below full capacity, which is incompatible with the goal of delivering open, affordable and reliable high-speed broadband to every home,” the letter said.

Fifth commissioner

Ajit Pai had stepped down as FCC chairman in January this year after three years in charge.

Pai had been appointed by President Trump in 2017 and right from the outset he proved to be controversial, after he reversed the 2015 Net Neutrality regulations, brought in under President Obama (and VP Biden), as well as former former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler (also a democrat).

Pai’s decision to reverse Net Neutrality regulations was felt by many as damaging the future of an open Internet in the United States. It meant that ISPs were able to block or slow down Internet access to certain services.

This prompted fears that consumers would have to pay for more expensive packages to stream Netflix, or tech companies will have to negotiate deals directly with providers. Businesses could also be restricted in their use of some cloud services.

Urgent matter

The letter to President Biden said that given the legislative calendar and the diminishing number of days for hearings and confirmation votes, the US has now “reached a critical point to guarantee the agency charged with ensuring affordable communications access can do its work during your administration.”

It said the fifth commissioner was needed to remedy previous neglect of the Lifeline program that supports low-income access to communications; create rules to make US networks more reliable and resilient; help guide the deployment of new broadband infrastructure; approve emergency waivers for E-rate funded infrastructure to be opened up for remote education; reclassify broadband internet access as a Title II service to ensure fair and equitable access for everyone and to reinstate strong net neutrality protections.

“If we are to reach the goal of having a country where everyone, no matter their address or size of their bank account, has affordable access to high-speed internet, we need a full commission as soon as possible,” the letter states.

“The pandemic showed us the unshakable image of children doing their classwork from fast-food parking lots using borrowed Wi-Fi,” it said. “We cannot let those students or any family wait any longer.”

“We urge the administration to not lose any more time and to nominate a fifth commissioner who is dedicated to bringing open, affordable and reliable internet access to all and fulfilling all of these vital goals,” the letter states.

The FCC currently has a 2-2 split of Republican and Democratic commissioners.

A Biden appointee could give Democrats the extra vote as they seek to reinstate net neutrality regulations.

Biden appointed Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel to lead the agency in an acting capacity earlier this year.

Net neutrality repeal

There had been outage in December 2017 when the republican controlled FCC controversially voted to “roll back” Obama-era net neutrality rules implemented in 2015.

The FCC decision to roll back the 2015 net neutrality laws triggered lawsuits from a number of US states.

A group of 22 state attorneys general and the District of Columbia had asked the appeals court to reinstate the rules, as well as to block the FCC’s effort to pre-empt states from imposing their own rules guaranteeing an open internet.

The Biden administration is not intending to continue the DoJ litigation against US states implementing their own net neutrality laws.

In February this year, California won significant legal victory that will allow it to finally implement its own tough net neutrality laws in the US state.

It won after the US Justice Department had filed an injunction to stop California implementing its own net neutrality law.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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