Internet providers sue over low-income law in New York

A stock image of an Internet server with Ethernet cables
(Stock image via Pexels)

A coalition of Internet service providers (ISPs) sued New York state’s attorney general in federal court this week, arguing that the state lacked authority to enforce a new law that requires ISPs to provide low-cost service to low-income households.

Under the law passed last month, ISPs who operate in New York state must provide a $15 a month tier of Internet service that offers a download speed of at least 25 megabits per second. The speed is the slowest to meet the definition of “broadband” as set by federal regulators several years ago.

The cheap Internet service would be offered to low-income households who meet certain criteria, including those with children who receive free or reduce-cost school lunches.

The move was touted by state officials as a “first-in-the-nation” law, one that they were almost certain would be met with litigation.

And so it was on Friday when a coalition of special interest groups backed by major ISPs filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging state officials had overstepped their authority in demanding they provide the budget Internet service.

Their prime argument as outlined in a complaint reviewed by The Desk is that Internet service is regulated as an “interstate information service” — in other words, that the federal government is in charge of handing down barking orders to ISPs, and any state that tries to do the same is out of line.

“More than a century ago, Congress enacted legislation that occupied the field of interstate communications service and, thereby, precluded states from directly regulating those services,” the lawsuit says.

To that point, the ISPs note that federal regulators recently decided to abdicate their responsibilities when it came to regulating broadband Internet services as part of a series of de-regulation moves made under the Trump administration.

“he Rate Regulation conflicts with that decision, as well as the Communications Act, by compelling providers to offer broadband on a common-carrier basis: at state-set rates and terms to all eligible members of the public,” the Internet companies argue.

State officials seem ready for the fight.

“I knew giant telecom companies would be upset by our efforts to level the playing field,” Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, said in a statement on Friday. “Right on cue, they’re pushing back. This is nothing more than a transparent attempt by billion-dollar corporations putting profit ahead of creating a more fair and just society.”

Cuomo said Internet service had become an essential service, a point made abundantly clear by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic when American families have worked and attended school from home.

“If these companies want to pick this fight, impede the ability of millions of New Yorkers to access this essential service and prevent them from participating in our economic recovery, I say bring it on,” Cuomo warned.

Thanks for reading and supporting The Desk. If you have a question, comment or news tip, send a message by email or text, or connect on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

Also, check out our new membership service The Desk: Pro Access for exclusive reporting, news scoops and in-depth analysis.