ATLANTA — The Federal Communications Commission on Friday finalized a requirement that all U.S. cable and broadband internet subscribers pay a monthly premium for high-speed service that costs at least $50 per month, effective in November.
The action ends a two-year legislative and regulatory battle over how to ease the health of rural broadband networks. President Trump in 2018 put his support behind the Republican-led effort to give high-speed internet service to rural Americans through the FCC’s reclassification of broadband as a telecommunications service, similar to the method the government uses to regulate phone calls.
“For too long, our broadband system has not been invested in,” the chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, said at a hearing in Atlanta before approving the rules.
The FCC has long prohibited cable companies from charging for “premium” internet service — even for those who can afford to pay more. But those who were served by cable companies, such as rural farmers, had little choice but to pay for the “basic” internet service offered by broadband companies.
The FCC voted on a new rule, Pai said, “to make sure the FCC is not left to sort out the ethical standards in the justice system” while cable companies and broadband companies fight it out in courts.
Mr. Pai acknowledged that some would say that $50 per month is “too expensive for some,” but he said “we believe that it is reasonable.”
The new rules set $50 as the minimum for high-speed internet connections, requiring that customers pay an average of $48.87 per month for this service. That means cable companies will have to look beyond the $20 to $30 they charge on a per-click basis for search engines and pop-up ads.
The rules will not affect most cable internet customers who receive their service from either Time Warner Cable or Charter Communications, said Daniel Brenner, a law professor at Indiana University who specializes in telecommunications.
While the FCC said there would be “transparency” requirements in place to monitor the amount of revenue that high-speed internet service providers collect, individuals cannot be sued for violating such rules, he said. “On the surface, the average customer does not have an effective means to challenge that,” he said.
The FCC rules will not affect companies that are not reliant on “portable” broadband services, which are typically used by workers who need to be online but are not necessarily employees or students at home.
The commission on Friday ordered Comcast, AT&T, CenturyLink and Cox Communications to increase their access to their employees’ cellphones as well as their broadband connections, as a way to encourage employee participation in efforts to connect rural residents.
These providers had lobbied against the cable and phone companies’ ability to charge consumers for high-speed internet connections. They also said they would provide broadband service at lower rates to all rural subscribers.
Thursday’s vote is part of a series of policy decisions by the commission in the past year. The broadband company CenturyLink sued the commission last year to halt the new high-speed internet requirements. The FCC reversed the rules in January and is awaiting a court ruling on the new decision.
The FCC said the $50 minimum price was in line with that charged by some smaller broadband service providers. The agency encouraged low-income households to sign up for low-cost, mobile-only broadband, as well as mobile-only high-speed access.
A petition that was rejected by the commission Friday calling for broadband-only services has tens of thousands of signatures from nearly 200 groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Restaurant Association and the National Association of Theater Owners.
They argued that the FCC did not give a proper basis for the decision, and that the affordable broadband should be available to everyone.