New FCC task force tackles broadband discrimination

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prepared to crack down on digital discrimination, as Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced the formation of a new task force charged with developing policies which promote equal access to broadband.

Creation of the team comes in response to the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November 2021, which requires the FCC to adopt rules addressing digital discrimination practices (also known as digital redlining) within two years.

Specifically, the task force will focus on creating policies prohibiting broadband deployment discrimination based on the income, racial or ethnic composition, and other agency determined relevant factors of a community. It will also oversee the development of model policies and best practices for state and local government use.

As specified by the law, the FCC will also overhaul its public complaint process to accommodate complaints from consumers about digital discrimination in their communities. All of these initiatives are set to be complete by November 2023.

“This work will touch almost every part of the agency,” Rosenworcel said in a statement. “Addressing digital discrimination and redlining is a critical piece to living up to our standard of equal access to the infrastructure needed for 21st century success…Your zip code should not determine access to broadband—which this pandemic has proven is a must have, just like electricity or water.”

The task force will be led by D’wana Terry, special advisor to the Chairwoman and acting director of the FCC’s Office of Workplace Diversity. She will be joined by Sanford Williams, deputy managing director in the Office of the Managing Director, and Alejandro Roark, chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau. Additional support will be provided by other Commission bureaus and offices.

RELATED: New broadband clause in U.S. infrastructure deal could hurt AT&T, Lumen: analyst

When the digital discrimination clause was added to the infrastructure bill last summer, analysts at New Street Research initially flagged it as a potential threat to ISPs including AT&T and Lumen. However, they tempered their stance following subsequent revisions to the text.

In August, NSR’s Blair Levin explained in a note to investors that while it appeared at first that ISPs “would have legal liability for any unequal access in their service offerings within their service territory” the language in the bill “was changed in ways that provide significant defenses for such differentiated offerings, such as pointing to either technical or economic infeasibility.”

He followed up with a note in October which concluded “we think the legal and financial risks are low though the political risks remain.”