What the FCC Should Focus on Instead of Net Neutrality

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President Biden recently released an executive order that among other items encourages the Federal Communications Commission to “Restore Net Neutrality rules undone by the prior administration.” This would not only be a mistake in terms of closing the digital divide, another stated goal of the administration, but would push the FCC away from important work that actually could close the digital divide — freeing up wireless spectrum. 

The current bipartisan infrastructure proposal in the Senate sets aside $65 billion for broadband infrastructure. The funding mechanism for this infrastructure is using the auction proceeds from spectrum used for 5G.

Spectrum is key to closing the digital divide both as a potential funding source for a broadband buildout as well for wireless connectivity. Yet even with spectrum’s importance the FCC has moved backwards on opening up spectrum during the Biden administration, as seen with the 4.9 GHz and 5.9 GHz bands.

The last four years of work at the FCC proved to be some of the most fruitful in recent memory in regards to freeing up spectrum for private use. During that time, more than 6 GHz of spectrum were licensed as 5G services and thousands of megahertz were made available for unlicensed use. It was the 3.5 GHz band, otherwise known as the C-band, which raised the funding that the infrastructure package proposes to use for broadband infrastructure.

Even with this $80 billion windfall from the auctioning of the C-band, that funding will be insufficient to cover recurring costs for closing the digital divide. With billions in subsidies already out the door to cover internet subscription costs for lower income Americans, Congress and the FCC will need to bring in additional funds. Given that spectrum auctions can bring in significant funding without additional government debt, it should be on the top of the FCC’s priority list rather than net neutrality. 

For FCC commissioner Brendan Carr it is on the top of the list. Carr outlined which spectrum the FCC should prioritize with his spectrum calendar for 2021 and 2022. It included 100 MHz of the 2.5 Ghz band, expanding use of the 6 GHz band, and updating the rules for Wi-Fi. Yet the FCC has failed to take up any of his spectrum calendar ideas. 

But rather than focusing on what can be a bipartisan victory, the FCC seems poised to descend into partisanship as it prepares for another ugly fight over net neutrality.” President Biden signaled his support for the expansive internet regulation when he appointed the father of the term, Tim Wu, to the National Economic Council to work on technology and competition policy. The latest executive order just makes it official. 

It’s not just that the focus on net neutrality is distracting from any change to the spectrum, but net neutrality will work against the administration and FCC’s goal of closing the digital divide. Analysis has shown that net neutrality regulation causes a decrease in investment by billions of dollars. Meanwhile, since neutrality has been repealed, internet speeds continued to increase dramatically, even as demand spiked during the pandemic. 

Much of the rationale for neutrality has already been solved by technological progress such as the widespread availability of high-speed mobile networks and SpaceX offering high-speed satellite internet service to the entire country by the end of the year. 

Given the broad bipartisan consensus and finally closing the digital divide after the COVID-19 pandemic, both the FCC and the Biden administration should continue to prioritize spectrum, net neutrality, to solve this problem once and for all. 

Eric Peterson is a Young Voices contributor and Director of Pelican Center for Technology and Innovation. He lives in New Orleans.

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