Internet Regulation Urgent as COVID Spotlights Digital Divide

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The Biden administration’s agenda, already focused on COVID, will face immediate pressure to address a related tech issue: access to home broadband, according to The Washington Post.

The country is in the midst of another pandemic surge and schools and offices are closing their doors again. COVID is highlighting a persistent digital divide, in which Americans without a strong and affordable internet connection are increasingly boxed out of work and education opportunities.  

New President Joe Biden promised during his candidacy he would prioritize expanding internet access as he made fixing the nation’s infrastructure a central tenet of his campaign message. His “Build Back Better” plan calls for the creation of “universal broadband” for every American. That could set the stage for Democrats to make good on a long-standing push to expand federal funding for internet access, noted the Post.

The Biden transition team is exploring immediate actions it can take to bring relief to Americans who urgently need an internet connection. Once under Democratic control, the FCC will be positioned to make changes to the E-rate program, which helps schools and libraries obtain affordable broadband access. The transition team received recommendations for changes to the program, which the Commission is expected to enact, according to three sources who spoke to the Post. Democrats have been pushing for changes to the program so that its funding can be used to expand internet access for students attending school virtually.

There will be two Democrats and two Republicans on the Commission after Republican Chairman Ajit Pai exits today. Democrats are expected to nominate another commissioner, who must be confirmed by the Senate. The timeline for nominations is unclear, as the Senate is under pressure to confirm key members of Biden’s Cabinet while also addressing pandemic relief and the impeachment of former President Trump.

There are some immediate actions the Biden administration can take in the interim. Lawmakers and activists are pressuring the incoming administration to immediately withdraw from a federal lawsuit brought under the Trump administration challenging California’s net neutrality law, according to the account. The lawsuit reflected Republicans’ efforts in recent years to repeal Obama-era rules that required AT&T, Verizon and other service providers to treat all internet traffic equally — and stop states from adopting their own similar provisions.

A group of 13 Democratic lawmakers, led by Rep. Anna Eshoo (CA), sent a letter to Merrick Garland, Biden’s nominee for attorney general, last week. The lawmakers called Garland to make dismissing the case one of his first actions after the inauguration to ensure that it does not obstruct states’ efforts to regulate on many tech policy issues.

The judge hearing the case has called on the Justice Department to say by February 9 whether it will drop the government challenge to California’s law.

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