F.C.C. Moves Toward Restoring Net Neutrality Rules, Igniting Regulatory Fight

By voting to move ahead with a proposal to restore net neutrality, the F.C.C. is broadening its reach.

The move will ultimately enable the agency to categorize high-speed internet as a utility, like water or electricity. That is a major step toward modernizing the agency’s objectives, especially as consumers increasingly depend on the internet as their main source for communications. The agency will then be able to police broadband providers for net neutrality violations, consumer harm and security lapses.

“Now is the time for our rules of the road for internet service providers to reflect the reality that internet access is a necessity for daily life,” Jessica Rosenworcel, the chair of the F.C.C., said in a statement.

Net neutrality is a wonky principle of equal internet access.

The idea is that broadband customers should have access to any site without interference by high-speed internet service providers. The concept, coined more than 15 years ago by Tim Wu, a Columbia law school professor, was initially developed to stop cable and telecom companies that provide internet services from blocking or slowing down the delivery of sites like Google, Netflix and Skype, which compete with them.

The debate over net neutrality has been highly partisan. The F.C.C. established net neutrality regulations during the Obama administration, but Republicans criticized them as an overreach. Telecom companies have also argued that net neutrality rules could lead to regulatory creep and the regulation of broadband rates. The F.C.C., led by Republicans under President Donald J. Trump, repealed the rules in 2017.

Ms. Rosenworcel, a Democrat, has said she decided to revive the debate after seeing the importance of broadband oversight in the coronavirus pandemic. Broadband became a necessity for education and work during lockdowns, but the agency couldn’t force providers to ensure quality service, she said.

Republican lawmakers are fighting the move to restore net neutrality rules. In a letter to Ms. Rosenworcel this week, Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee slammed the proposal as a “solution in search of a problem.”

USTelecom, the trade group representing companies like AT&T and Verizon, wrote letters this week to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees warning of “mission creep” by the F.C.C. into cybersecurity. The letters said the F.C.C. was potentially sowing confusion among government agencies and congressional committees over national security issues related to broadband.

Brendan Carr, a Republican commissioner at the F.C.C., said broadband services had improved without regulation. He criticized the proposal as counterproductive for consumers.

“There will be lots of talk about ‘net neutrality’ and virtually none about the core issue before the agency: namely, whether the F.C.C. should claim for itself the freewheeling power to micromanage nearly every aspect of how the internet functions — from the services that consumers can access to the prices that can be charged,” Mr. Carr said.

The F.C.C. will begin taking public comments on the proposed rule. The chair can then choose to incorporate comments into a final draft. The commission will then vote on enacting the regulation in early 2024 at the earliest.