When former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai left office on Jan. 20, 2021, his departure was greeted with hoots of derision. His crime? Destroying net neutrality. Now, President Joe Biden has named FCC member and net neutrality champion Jessica Rosenworcel to chair the Commission. This is a big step forward for net neutrality's return.
While President Donald Trump and Pai helped destroy net neutrality to the advantage of major ISPs and telecoms, Rosenworcel fought against their efforts and for net neutrality.
Net neutrality is at its heart a very simple idea: Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all data that travels over their networks fairly, without discriminating for or against any particular apps, sites, or services. Today's commercial internet began with what we now call net neutrality via the Commercial Internet Exchange (CIX). Without it, instead of the internet we know and use every day, we would have been stuck with isolated islands of connectivity like the online services of the 80s and 90s such as AOL, CompuServe, and Prodigy.
Without network neutrality, we'd have no Amazon, Netflix, Facebook, or Google. We might not even have the Web we're no more aware of today than a fish is of the water in which it swims.
Millions of Americans, in part because of net neutrality's teardown, don't have access to broadband internet. According to the FCC's 2020 Broadband Deployment Report, 21.3 million rural Americans don't have access to internet download speeds of at least 25 Mbps, which is the recommended speed for working from home and online schooling. The real numbers are much worse. BroadbandNow Research using the FCC's own data found almost twice that number, 42 million, don't have broadband access.
In October 2020, when Pai faced a Federal Court order to reconsider net neutrality's impact on public safety and providing subsidies for broadband service, Pai refused to act.
Rosenworcel snapped back, "This is crazy. The internet should be open and available for all. That's what net neutrality is about. It's why people from across this country rose up to voice their frustration and anger with the Federal Communications Commission when it decided to ignore their wishes and roll back net neutrality."
She continued, "The FCC is going to make it easier for broadband companies to block websites, slow speeds, and dictate what we can do and where we can go online. It's insane that this is happening now, during a pandemic when we rely on internet access for so much of day-to-day life."
Rosenworcel's right. With the coronavirus raging on, Americans whether they're working from home or going to school need broadband more than ever. The newly minted FCC chair has been especially harsh about the damage the lack of affordable broadband has done to school kids, which she calls the "homework gap."
Rosenworcel said, "When I was growing up, homework required nothing more than your siblings leaving you alone, a clear workspace, and a Number 2 pencil. Those days are gone. Not just because the school year is winding down. They are gone because today as many as seven in ten teachers assign homework that requires access to broadband. But data from this Commission suggests one in three households do not subscribe to broadband service." This is not right.
"If you want evidence this is not right, it's all around us, Rosenworcel said in a later statement, "There are people sitting in parking lots using free Wi-Fi signals because they have no other way to get online. There are students who fall in the homework gap because they lack the high-speed service they need to participate in remote learning."
In the short term, Rosenworcel will get a new broadband $7-billion pandemic stimulus program underway. These "E-Rate" funds are to help students get Wi-Fi access. Pai had ruled that these funds could only be used for classrooms. With millions of students stuck at home, Rosenworcel believes some of this money should be used to provide home connectivity for students to close the homework gap.
In the long run, if Rosenworcel becomes the permanent head of the FCC, there's no question she will fight to return net neutrality. When Pai ended net neutrality, Rosenworcel said the FCC had "failed the American public." Given a chance, Rosenworcel will bring back to the American public the net neutrality they need for their jobs, lives, and education.