What does the revival of net neutrality mean?

Expect more FCC investigations and oversight.
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Francis Scialabba

4 min read

Net neutrality is poised to make a comeback.

For anyone who’s been online over the last decade, that term probably sounds familiar, even if it might prompt you to scratch your head and say…”Huh, what does that mean again?”

Ahead of an April 25 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) meeting, where the agency is expected to vote along party lines to reinstate the Obama-era web-browsing protections, Tech Brew asked a couple experts to explain the potential rule change and its impacts.

Here’s what they told us.

So…what is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is a broad term for a collection of policies that mandate internet service providers can’t meaningfully interfere with the way that web traffic is transmitted, including speeding up, slowing down, or explicitly granting paid access to websites or pieces of content.

“One of the core principles of net neutrality is really focused on treating all internet traffic equally,” Dan Hays, a PwC partner specializing in the tech and telecom industry, said.

The term’s coinage traces back to 2003, when Tim Wu, a Columbia University professor, noted that ISPs could manipulate the way they carried content to potentially extract more money from users. In the past, companies like Netflix have paid ISPs extra to send bandwidth-intensive videos across the internet.

One of the original drivers of net neutrality was that “network providers…were attempting to extract rents from providers of content,” Hays said, noting that end customers had already paid to receive service. “It’s akin to charging you to drive on a toll road, but then also charging the vehicle manufacturer to allow their brand of car on the road as well.”

Although standalone mobile networks haven’t typically been included in the regime, advocates have pointed to other instances of behavior they say should be regulated, such as:

  • AT&T blocking Apple’s FaceTime for some iPhone users;
  • ISPs excluding specific content providers from customer data caps under so-called zero-rating arrangements;
  • Verizon slowing a California fire department’s wireless data speed while it battled a wildfire.

How did we get here?

The FCC ushered in the first set of net-neutrality rules in 2010, and it’s been a ping-pong match since then, with the rules being overturned, reinstated and overturned again (most recently, in 2017).

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Now that the FCC has a Democratic majority following over two years of partisan gridlock, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has once more moved to reinstate the rules, this time with a focus on public safety and the need for better broadband oversight.

So…what would change?

The biggest effect of the expected rule change is that the FCC would reclaim authority as the primary regulator of internet providers. This would happen by reapplying Title II of the Communications Act to broadband companies, essentially treating them as common carriers with baseline responsibilities that the FCC can enforce.

“The big debate is over Title II, and what that actually means and what that allows the FCC to do,” Gigi Sohn, a policy expert and former FCC advisor, said. “I actually welcome the shift from focusing on net neutrality [principles] focusing on the oversight.”

According to an FCC fact sheet, this means the agency would have more power to investigate things like network outages and that data-throttling incident involving firefighters. The rules would also update the definition of mobile providers and assert the agency’s authority to oversee them, according to the FCC.

“It gives them tools in their toolbox if they want to exercise that regulatory authority,” Sohn said, including in response to data breaches, fraudulent billing, and price gouging.

Wait…will this affect my broadband bill?

The short answer is that a rule change could, in theory, drive up prices. But in practice, consumers probably won’t see net-neutrality-related cost increases anytime soon.

“Net neutrality will limit the ability of network operators to pass costs along to the providers of content,” Hays said. “It might then squeeze the proverbial balloon and force those costs to be passed along to the end user, to the retail customer.”

However, he noted that the 2017 net-neutrality rollback didn’t cause consumer broadband prices to fluctuate, so it’s unlikely we’ll see any big wobbles this time around. That’s good news, since the average American’s internet bill is $89 a month.

Keep up with the innovative tech transforming business

Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.