Net neutrality: What's next after the FCC regulation repeal?

The FCC has overturned Obama-era net neutrality rules, but the transition isn't as simple as throwing a switch. Here's what the near future of internet regulation looks like.

An unsurprising 3-2 Republican-led party line vote by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on December 14, 2017, eliminated net neutrality regulations enacted in 2015. For many people that brings immediate fears of speed throttling, price hikes, and fast lanes for certain kinds of content—but the process isn't that binary.

The regulatory changes coming from the FCC vote give a wide range of freedoms to telecom companies and ISPs, but these changes don't take effect right away. Also, the new rules don't eliminate all of the responsibilities ISPs have to consumers.

I've written about the core arguments of net neutrality before, and those arguments are unchanged. What has changed is the current landscape of the net neutrality debate (which has become a political issue), and that is what will be discussed here.

What has changed about net neutrality?

In 2015, the FCC under President Obama classified internet service providers as Title II common carriers, and made them subject to all the regulations that come with that status.

This meant that ISPs were the delivery vehicle for a non-proprietary product, the internet, and were required to treat all traffic they delivered to consumers in the exact same way. That means no paid priority, no zero rating, no throttling, and no fast lanes.

SEE: The cloud v. data center decision (free PDF) (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature)

The latest vote by President Trump's FCC under chairman Ajit Pai removes Title II common carrier classification from ISPs and reclassifies them under Title I of the Communications Act as information services, which are defined as:

"... the offering of a capability for generating, acquiring, storing, transforming, processing, retrieving, utilizing, or making available information via telecommunications...".

All in all, most every part of the 2015 FCC decision has been undone by the latest vote, along with:

  • Returning mobile broadband to its former status as a private mobile service.
  • Handing enforcement over to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
  • Requiring ISPs to inform consumers, businesses, and the FCC of plans for "any blocking, throttling, paid prioritization, or affiliated prioritization."
  • Eliminating the Internet Conduct Standard.

This means that ISPs are now essentially free to engage in zero-rating, paid prioritization, throttling of competitive services, and a la carte pricing for faster delivery of certain kinds of traffic—provided the ISPs issue a public statement.

Additional resources

When will will the FCC's changes to net neutrality take effect?

Here's where everyone needs to tap the brakes: Nothing has changed yet. As with any change in laws or regulations, it takes time to implement new rules, and the reversal of net neutrality is no different.

First thing's first: The changes have to be entered into the Federal Register, which records all changes to US government regulations. That typically takes a while, especially during the holidays, so there's little chance it makes the books until the beginning of 2018.

SEE: How to choose and manage great tech partners (ZDNet/TechRepublic special report)

Secondly, as the FCC's own press release on the vote states, "the item takes effect upon approval by the Office of Management and Budget [OMB] of the new transparency rule that requires the collection of additional information from industry."

The transparency rule that requires ISPs to submit records of non-net neutral practices has to go through the OMB, and that could take even longer.

Additional resources

Who will be affected by the changes?

A report issued by Forrester research indicates clearly who will be affected by the reversal of net neutrality regulations: Everyone. "[ISPs] can now create fast and slow lanes and service packages that let content and application owners pay more for faster or lower latency networks," it said.

Consumers aren't going to see any changes to their internet plans or fees until the regulations are enacted. Once the changes are enacted, it's theoretically possible that ISPs could:

  • Throttle traffic for competing services (e.g., an ISP with its own streaming video service could throttle Netflix to push consumers toward their own brand).
  • Zero-rate certain services if they enter into a partnership with a vendor (e.g., a second ISP could partner with Netflix to offer their service without it counting toward monthly bandwidth usage caps).
  • Provide a fast lane to companies that pay the ISP a service fee (critics have argued that this will provide an edge to large companies, who could still pass on the costs to consumers).
  • Block content they deem objectionable.

Those same theoreticals also affect businesses, especially small ones, who rely on the internet to reach customers. If net neutrality advocates are correct in their assessment of what ISPs will do now that net neutrality is a thing of the past, companies could face:

  • Higher internet access fees for the bandwidth required to match their competitors.
  • Throttling because a competitor pays more (e.g., Amazon could pay an ISP for top-tier bandwidth allocation, making it more difficult for smaller retailers to compete).
  • Consumers choosing other options because connections to those sites are faster, more reliable, or cheaper.

SEE: Cloud migration decision tool (Tech Pro Research)

Both the FCC and ISPs have stated that this will not be the case, however. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has stated that the repeal will foster innovation and service expansion, which declined under the 2015 net neutrality regulations.

Comcast executive vice president David L. Cohen has also gone on record several times as saying Comcast has not, and has no plans to, throttle or create fast lanes. Statements like that have been made by other ISP representatives as well.

It's worth noting that, prior to 2015, there were several cases of ISPs not playing fairly. It has happened before, and now there are no laws in place to stop it from happening again.

Additional resources

Are the new net neutrality rules permanent?

The repeal of Obama-era net neutrality is a repeal of regulations and not actual law, so it isn't permanent. It's entirely possible that in the future the FCC or a congressional session could reinstate net neutrality or pass legislation to formalize it, or formally eliminate the possibility of it returning.

SEE: Toolkit: Calculating bandwidth needs (Tech Pro Research)

It's unlikely that the current Republican Congress will write net neutrality into law—the party has generally been opposed to net neutrality regulation, which members have argued is overly burdensome to ISPs and innovation.

Without changes made by a future FCC or Congress, the landscape of the internet is changed for good. The unknown is how great of an effect it will actually have on individuals and businesses.

Additional resources

How can I get involved in the net neutrality discussion?

It's fair to say that net neutrality, as it existed up until the FCC's vote, is dead; there are no laws in place to prevent companies from un-leveling the playing field. Regardless, net neutrality is still a hot button issue for many people on both sides of the fence, and all those people should stay involved and make their voices heard.

Whether you are pleased about, or frustrated by, the latest FCC ruling, you should contact your representative or senator and give them your thoughts on the matter.

SEE: Nine ways to disappear from the internet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

The FTC will now be handling all issues surrounding improper behavior by ISPs. If you find yourself subject to unfair practices, don't hesitate to report it.

In addition, keep an eye on the Federal Register to see when the Restoring Internet Freedom Act becomes active.

Lastly, visit TechRepublic and our sister sites ZDNet and CNET to get the latest on net neutrality, the future of the internet, and how the new approach to internet governance affects you.

Image: iStock/BackyardProduction

About Brandon Vigliarolo

Brandon writes about apps and software for TechRepublic. He's an award-winning feature writer who previously worked as an IT professional and served as an MP in the US Army.

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