Presidential candidate Joe Biden has pledged to restore network neutrality rules that were dismantled by federal regulators over the last four years.
In a lengthy document outlining policy proposals should he win the election in November, Biden said he would “take strong enforcement action against broadband providers who violate net neutrality principles through blocking, throttling, paid prioritization, or other measures that create artificial scarcity and raise consumer prices for this vital service.”
The principles of network neutrality involve establishing rules that require Internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and Charter/Spectrum to treat all Internet traffic equally. It largely prohibits the implementation of so-called “fast lanes” that accelerate or throttle traffic based on a customer or company’s willingness to pay more for service.
Under the Obama administration, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) enacted new regulations for ISPs that heavily borrowed from the idea of network neutrality. The regulations treated Internet service as a public utility and largely forbade ISPs from introducing “fast lanes” or otherwise limiting access to services that might compete with its own offerings.
The passage of those regulations were not popular with ISPs — they argued network neutrality rules would lead to a decrease in investment for broadband internet services. After the regulations were put in place, some ISPs — particularly those who ran public companies — admitted the rules had virtually no effect on their investment in broadband infrastructure.
Nonetheless, under the Trump administration, the FCC has rolled back most of the regulations imposed under the previous administration. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai — a Trump appointee — said the reduced regulation encouraged ISPs to increase their investment in broadband networks, though data from public companies show investment in broadband infrastructure has actually decreased under Pai’s leadership.
Since the FCC rolled back network neutrality rules, land-based ISPs have implemented arbitrary broadband data caps, charging customers extra for access to unlimited data. Meanwhile, wireless phone companies have started implementing so-called “network congestion” plans that deprioritize customer access to networks during times of heavy use unless they agree to pay more for better service (one company‘s deprioritization scheme impacted a California fire department during a serious emergency two years ago).
By himself, Biden would not be able to do much to undo the Trump administration’s reversal of network neutrality rules. But he would be responsible with picking the next chairman of the FCC, and with a partisan majority on the five-panel commission board, it’s plausible Biden’s influence would ripple through the agency as Trump and Obama’s did.
In addition to the network neutrality rules, Biden says he wants to ban states from enacting laws that prohibit local, municipal governments from launching their own ISPs; increase investment in rural broadband infrastructure; and make it easier for low-income Americans to access low-cost, subsidized high-speed Internet service through the federal Lifeline program.
In recent months, the Trump administration has made moves that complement some of Biden’s ideas while refuting others. In January, Trump announced an investment of $86 million in aid through the U.S. Department of Agriculture that was intended to provide better rural broadband access to around 17,000 residents in Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin — eight states that Trump won in the 2016 presidential election.
Since he took office in 2016, the Trump administration and the FCC have gutted Lifeline, the federal program that provides low-income Americans with telephone service through a small taxpayer-funded subsidy. Among other things, the FCC proposed limiting access to Lifeline through major carriers like AT&T and Verizon instead of allowing smaller resellers to offer it to eligible households. It also proposed a limitation on offering Lifeline on tribal lands. That proposal was enacted, only to be overturned by a federal court in California.