- The FCC’s net neutrality rules officially died on Monday, giving US broadband providers the latitude to block or slow access to particular internet services, or to create so-called fast lanes to them.
- The providers say they don’t plan to block or slow access to internet sites, but they have indicated they do want to create fast lanes.
- But experts expect them to move cautiously, because they’re under scrutiny and the net neutrality rules were widely popular.
The US Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of its net neutrality rules officially takes effect Monday, but US consumers shouldn’t expect their internet experience to change immediately.
Passed by the Republican-led FCC in December, the Restoring Internet Freedom Order ends the agency’s prohibitions against internet service providers blocking, slowing down, or providing preferential treatment to particular internet sites and services. Instead, the agency will only require providers to publicly disclose how they treat internet traffic, and will leave it up to the Federal Trade Commission to make sure they are doing what they said and aren’t being anticompetitive.
Here’s how the the order may – or may not – affect US consumers.
Will I still be able to access Netflix and other online services?
Generally, yes. The major broadband providers – AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon – have all said they won’t block access to particular internet sites or services, even those that compete against their own offerings.
Will my access to Netflix or other sites slow down?
In general, no. The big broadband providers have all promised that they won’t slow customers’ access to particular sites or services.
However, it’s possible that access could slow anyway. Earlier this decade, many consumers found their access to Netflix slowed amid a dispute between the streaming video provider and broadband companies over who would pay to upgrade the connections between their networks. The slowdown was only fixed after Netflix agreed to pay for the upgrades.
While the now-defunct net neutrality rules didn’t specifically address interchange disputes, they did give the FCC broad latitude to oversee the “general conduct” of broadband providers to determine if the companies were being anticompetitive or interfering with customers’ ability to access internet sites and services. Thanks to the repeal, the FCC no longer has that authority.
What’s more, internet advocates have long been concerned that if broadband providers are able to create so-called fast lanes to particular sites and services, they will in effect slow down traffic to all other locations on the internet.
Will I have to pay more to reach certain sites or services?
For now, no. But that could change in the future.
The major broadband operators have said they don’t plan to create internet fast lanes. But unlike with the issues of blocking or slowing access to internet services, they have been much less definitive on fast lanes. In fact, some have made clear they want to have the freedom to prioritise certain kinds of traffic over others.
The broadband providers typically frame this issue as wanting to be able to give special treatment to certain applications, where having extremely low lag times could mean the difference between life and death.
“I think we can all agree that the packets directing autonomous cars, robotic surgeries, or public safety communications must not drop. Ever,” Bob Quinn, AT&T’s senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs, said in the February blog post. “So, let’s address concerns around paid prioritisation without impacting those innovations.”
But the FCC’s outgoing rules already allowed broadband providers leeway to create special data channels for such services where the net-neutrality provisions wouldn’t apply. Consumer advocates are concerned that internet providers plan to extend prioritisation to the internet. They’re worried the providers will charge consumers extra to reach particular sites and services in a speedy manner, either by directly billing them or by charging companies like Netflix, which could be expected to pass on the costs to their subscribers.
“The end of the 2015 net neutrality rules and the legal authority on which they are based will allow companies like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon to take control of consumers’ Internet experience and favour or disfavor websites, programming services and applications at will,” said Gigi Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy.
How soon should I expect broadband providers to make changes?
If the broadband providers do end up creating fast lanes – or even slowing or blocking traffic – they likely won’t do so right away.
Net neutrality has overwhelming public support, noted industry experts. And with the policy in the news, broadband providers are under scrutiny from Congress, the public and the press. So, the broadband providers are likely to move cautiously.
“We may not see the broadband providers immediately change their practices on day one,” said Matt Wood, a policy director at consumer advocacy group Free Press. “They’re slightly smarter than that.”
Still, the providers have seem to be paving the way to make changes. Comcast, for example, has changed its stated commitments concerning net neutrality and no longer mentions anything about paid prioritisation, otherwise known as fast lanes.
Meanwhile, even before the end of the net-neutrality rules, several broadband providers, including AT&T and Verizon, were experimenting with so-called zero-rating programs. Those programs allow consumers to access certain sites and services without the data to and from them applying to any monthly caps they may have. Consumer groups have charged that when zero-rating plans are used to promote services owned by the broadband providers, or by companies that pay the providers to market them, they are akin to fast lanes.
Zero-rating programs weren’t specifically barred under the now-defunct net neutrality protections. But late in the Obama administration, the FCC opened up an inquiry to see if they violated the general conduct provisions.
Ajit Pai, whom President Trump named to be his new FCC chairman, and who spearheaded the repeal of the net-neutrality rules, killed that inquiry soon after assuming the chairmanship. With the repeal of the new rules and the general-conduct provisions, the FCC will no longer have any oversight over such programs.
Do the states have any say about this?
In the wake of the FCC’s repeal of its net neutrality rules, several states have adopted their own protections.
The governors of New York, New Jersey, and Montana, for example, have each signed executive orders requiring broadband providers with state contracts to be net neutral. But those rules don’t cover every provider in those states, just those that do business with those states’ governments.
Washington and Oregon have gone farther, and passed laws that require all ISPs within their borders to offer net neutrality protections. And California bill moving through the state legislature would go one step beyond that would go one step beyond that by banning all zero-rating programs altogether.
Didn’t Congress do something to restore the rules?
The Senate voted in May to overturn the FCC’s order. But that was just one step in the process of potentially reversing the repeal. The resolution to overturn the order still has to be passed by a majority in the House and signed by President Donald Trump in order for it to take effect.
Congress could also pass i’s own law codifying net neutrality, but that seems unlikely for now, so long as Republicans, who largely opposed the FCC’s net neutrality rules, control both houses.