The FCC will crack down on ISPs to improve connectivity in poorer areas

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is keeping a close eye on internet providers to make sure they provide Americans with equal access to broadband services regardless of customers’ “income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion or national origin.” Two years after the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law became official, the FCC has adopted a final set of relevant rules to enforce.

The Commission will have the power to investigate possible instances of “digital discrimination” under the new rules and could penalize providers for violating them. It could, for instance, look into a company’s pricing, network upgrades and maintenance procedures to decide whether a provider is keeping an affluent area well maintained while failing to provide the same level of service to a low-income area.

As The Wall Street Journal explains, it could even hold companies like AT&T and Comcast liable even if they weren’t intentionally discriminatory, as long as their actions “differentially impact consumers’ access to broadband.” If the FCC does receive complaints against a particular provider, though, it will take into account any technical and economic challenges it may be facing that prevents it from providing equal access to its services.

According to The Journal, the FCC approved the new rules in a 3-2 vote. Their critics — mainly internet providers and Republican members of the Congress — argued that the decision could affect investments and that the commission is taking things too far by penalizing unintentional discrimination. But FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel found the rules to be reasonable, especially since the agency will “accept genuine reasons of technical and economic feasibility as valid reasons.”

In addition to adopting a set of rules for digital discrimination, the FCC has also updated its protections against SIM swapping and port-out scams. It will now require wireless providers to notify customers immediately when a SIM change or a port-out is requested for their account and phone number. Further, providers are required to take additional steps to protect their subscribers from the schemes. The FCC has voted to begin a formal inquiry to look into the impact of artificial intelligence on robocalls, as well. It could, after all, be used to block unwanted voice and text messages, but it could also be used to more easily defraud people through calls and texts. Finally, the commission is now requiring mobile providers to split phone lines from family plans for victims of domestic violence when the abuser is on the account. Providers will also have to remove records of calls and texts to domestic violence hotlines from subscribers’ logs, and they’re expected to support survivors who can’t afford lines of their own through the FCC Lifeline program.

Update, November 16, 2023, 8:50PM ET: This story has been updated to add information about the FCC’s new rules supporting domestic violence survivors.

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Mariella Moon