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FCC Chair: U.S. Needs National Net Neutrality Policy

Net neutrality — a long-debated policy that was solidified under President Barack Obama — required Internet service providers to treat all communications on their networks the same regardless of content.

A word cloud featuring "net neutrality" in the center in orange font with other smaller words surrounding it in black font.
(TNS) — In 2018, when firefighters were battling the Pawnee Fire in Lake County, they suddenly found their internet speed dramatically slowed, hamstringing their ability to move people and resources around the growing blaze.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, that was because in 2017 the agency under the Trump administration backed away from regulating internet service providers such as Verizon and Comcast and stopped enforcing so-called net neutrality, which ensured equal access to all users.

Net neutrality — a long-debated policy that was solidified under President Barack Obama — required internet service providers to treat all communications on their networks the same regardless of content. The policy's reversal under President Donald Trump meant broadband companies were free to charge different amounts depending on the speed or services that content creators were willing to pay for.

Since then, companies like Verizon have begun offering differentiated plans, such as one for first responders that promised more robust and specialized network services. But at the time of the Pawnee Fire, the FCC said, firefighters were at the back of the pack and their broadband was throttled.

The current FCC chair, Jessica Rosenworcel, is angling to reinstate net neutrality and prevent classes of service that punish those who don't pay extra. A vote on the policy change is scheduled for this month in Washington, D.C.

Sitting inside a Santa Clara County fire station in Campbell on Monday, Rosenworcel laid out why the rules need to change back. She was there, ahead of the commission's vote, to underline the effect data throttling had on firefighters from the station, one of many that battled the Pawnee blaze.

"Ultimately in a modern digital economy we should have a national policy, full stop," Rosenworcel told the Chronicle. She said it was difficult to say how much throttling had gone on since the 2017 pullback.

"We get anecdotal reports of it," she said. "At the FCC we don't have any powers to investigate or identify what's going on because the last administration took those authorities away."

Rosenworcel's perspective on net neutrality and the firefighters isn't universally shared.

In a statement released after the briefing at the fire station, Verizon argued that it has "a long-standing commitment to an open internet" and does not "prioritize traffic in a way that harms competition or consumers."

"We offer transparency in what we do," Verizon said, adding that, "for three decades we've worked hand-in-hand with public safety agencies and first responders on the front lines delivering mission critical communications where and when they're needed."

The statement also included links to statements from two current and former Republican FCC commissioners. Brendan Carr, the senior Republican on the five-member commission, wrote on X that the firefighter incident was not a net neutrality issue at all but rather the result of the firefighters having purchased an insufficient data plan.

Former commissioner Mike O'Rielly, cq a Republican who was appointed by former President Obama, made a similar point.

Santa Clara County Fire Chief Suwanna Kerdkaew said the district had not experienced throttling since the 2018 incident. But districts like hers send resources across state lines to fight fires under mutual assistance agreements. And there's no guarantee that kind of data slowdown couldn't happen elsewhere.

To protect California internet users, state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, pushed through a law in 2018 that guaranteed net neutrality throughout the state.

Speaking on Friday, Wiener said he would be happy to see a federal law on the issue, adding that without congressional action, "It's all temporary."

"Obama set a strong standard and Trump ripped it away," Wiener said. "Anything not an act of Congress is a risk."

The FCC is contemplating a rule change, not passing a law through Congress.

Data throttling isn't the only issue at stake during the vote later this month, said Tom Wheeler, FCC chair during the Obama administration who is now with the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.

Wheeler said that "the new rules will re-establish the ability of the FCC to deal with issues that come up in the most important network of the 21st century," with implications for technology from cybersecurity to artificial intelligence.

Asked about instances of throttling since the 2017 changes under Trump, Wheeler pointed to California's net neutrality law. That legislation prevailed after lawsuits from internet service providers that said the state rules would negatively affect investment and their businesses, saddling them with burdensome regulations.

"Industry usually prefers to have one set of rules and uniformity and opposes patchwork laws," said Irina Raicu, director of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. But internet providers "opposed federal regulation and ended up with a patchwork of laws."

Instead of digging for examples of rampant throttling, "The broader question is why then are the companies opposing it so strongly?" Wheeler said.

The tug of war over the FCC's ability to regulate telecom providers goes back to the Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860, Wheeler said. Although a permanent federal law would be ideal on the issue, Congress "can't even pass a budget," he said.

Asked Monday whether she would like to see an overarching federal law instead of a political back and forth over the issue, Rosenworcel demurred.

"I'm happy to advise Congress any time," she said during the news conference. "The FCC has the power to reinstate net neutrality. And I'm looking to do just that."

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