The morning after: What do we do about net neutrality now?


Federal Communications Commission  Chairman Tom Wheeler speaks during a news conference after the agency's open meeting on Thursday. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Tech journalists are huge nerds. So, after Thursday's wall-to-wall net neutrality coverage, it's now time to step back, get out of the weeds and take stock. Ive been asking people what they still want to know about net neutrality, and I've gotten a flood of responses. I'll try to tackle them one by one.

First, if you're just joining us, the FCC on Thursday agreed to consider a set of proposed rules that would tacitly allow Internet providers to speed up some types of Web traffic at the expense of other types. If adopted, it could fundamentally change how the Web works at a basic level. Naturally, people have a lot of questions about what's going to happen.

The short answer is, Netflix could become more expensive. If it keeps signing deals with broadband companies like Comcast, just so that it can provide you with smoother service, it might consider jacking up your subscription fee to cover any extra expense it incurs. There's some debate about whether this is already happening. Netflix recently raised its prices by $1 a month, and it doesn't deny that Comcast played a role in the decision.

The longer answer is that the Netflix deal is not exactly the same as the types of deals we might see under the FCC's proposed rule, because its agreement with Comcast is about bringing data to Comcast's door — not how Comcast routes that traffic to the end user over "last-mile" pipes.

That's another good question along the same lines. It's important to remember that what we're talking about are proposed rules. No actual rules have been passed, and nothing is going to change until the end of the year at least. The public now has four months to file comments on the proposal, which you can read here. We can probably expect a final decision from the FCC on net neutrality between September and the end of December.

As for how the Internet itself could change, it seems inevitable that Internet providers could speed up some traffic. However, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler did say that under the proposal (which is just a proposal!) broadband providers would not be allowed to slow down traffic to below what a user has bought and paid for. So if you have a 75 Mbps connection at home, for example, services should always be delivered at that speed.

But the proposal also asks the public to weigh in on whether paid prioritization, or fast lanes, should be banned altogether. If the FCC takes that route, then presumably Internet providers would be free to speed up some traffic, like Netflix, over something like e-mail attachments without any money changing hands between companies. Would this be a good thing? It's not clear.

Because of the potentially higher costs to Web-based businesses that may arise from the proposed rules, some smaller companies may languish in the slow lane because they can't afford to pay the fees assessed on large companies to reach broadband providers' subscribers. So, yes, small startups could be harmed by this outcome. Many such companies recently signed a letter headlined by Google, Facebook, Amazon and others calling for stronger net neutrality rules. Silicon Valley investors also wrote a similar letter of their own.

This isn't really a question, but it raises a very good analogy. Say you're at work and you pick up a phone. No matter what number you dial, you can be 99 percent confident that your call will go through. It won't be stuck behind some other company's call because they paid more to be routed first. In fact, the FCC has rules that prevent just this kind of practice.

Why doesn't the FCC apply those same rules to broadband companies? Actually, it tried to do that back in 2010. Until Verizon came in with a lawsuit, arguing that the commission was applying phone company rules to a type of company that's treated differently under the law. In January, a federal court agreed, saying the FCC didn't have enough legal authority to regulate ISPs like it does phone companies, which is how we got into the current mess.

Some people are making a big deal out of this, but I'm a little more skeptical of the argument that Wheeler is in the cable lobby's pocket. He does have a long history of representing industry; he has been a top lobbyist not just for cable but for the cellular industry, too. But from what I've observed, Wheeler is highly sensitive to the historic nature of the moment. As a history buff who's written about massive changes in technology before, Wheeler is prone to drawing analogies to the early days of the telephone, and even to the Civil War.

He has also openly challenged his former employers, telling them in a recent speech that the cable industry "is now the incumbent, not the insurgent." Wheeler added that cable has so far been only lightly regulated but that it dominates the broadband market, and therefore its executives must "uphold your responsibilities."

So, yes, Wheeler has a connection to industry, and he brings an industry perspective, which may influence his thinking. But it's probably unfair to say that he's been bought and paid for. Besides, Washington is just plain bad at scheming.

There are about 20 states with laws on the books that hinder cities from competing with big Internet providers by offering their own, public Internet service. In many cases, the cable industry has to put high-speed fiber in the ground. The states argue that it's a waste of resources; citizens respond that the quality of their ISP's existing service isn't good enough. The FCC has indicated, along with its net neutrality proposal, that it wants to start preempting some of these state laws.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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Brian Fung | May 16