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What the heck is net neutrality?

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote on how it regulates Internet service providers. This is an important step in the debate over net neutrality.

But what is net neutrality?

It’s the idea that Internet service providers such as Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and Time Warner Cable should treat all online traffic running through their pipes equally. Big companies such as Netflix and Google don’t get special treatment. With net neutrality, Google, for example, is stuck in the same traffic in those pipes as your grandmother’s blog.

The opposite of net neutrality is a “pay to play” approach that allows, say, Comcast to charge extra for a “fast lane” that bypasses other Internet traffic. In other words: If Hulu, for example, pays Comcast to make sure “Nashville” gets to your house faster than TV shows travelling in the slow lane, that’s not net neutrality.

Those who support net neutrality want the FCC to treat Comcast et. al. like “common carriers” — public utilities like those that provide telephone service, water and electricity. Common carriers, in theory, provide basic services on equal terms for a fair price.

Those who are against net neutrality would rather the FCC treat Comcast and its brethren as an “information service,” which the FCC has less power to regulate.

Thursday’s vote is just the first step in determining how the FCC will regulate the Internet. New rules won’t apply until they are adopted after a public comment period.

Here’s what the FCC might be thinking about.

Arguments in favor of net neutrality

  1. Higher prices will get passed onto consumers. This is already happening. Recently, Netflix begrudgingly agreed to pay Comcast and Verizon for faster service and raised their subscription price by $1 for new customers not long after. Recently, Comcast revealed plans to start charging some customers more under a usage-based billing scheme.
  2. Innovation will suffer if small companies can’t compete with established content providers that can afford the high cost of quality Internet service. Once small startups, Internet giants like Google were able to thrive because of the Internet’s “innovation without permission” ecosystem that has few barriers to entry, according to Michael Beckerman, president and chief executive of the Internet Association, an industry group.
  3. Consumers could get caught up in disputes. Last summer, CBS broadcasts were blacked out for several weeks for Time Warner Cable customers because of a dispute over the cost of transmitting content.
  4. The slow lane will be like using the Internet in the 1990s. Some fear the slow lane will resemble the dial-up connections of the Internet’s early days. Tech investor Brad Feld demonstrates what that could be like here.
  5. Internet companies would have too much power to decide what we can watch. Companies such as Comcast may block or slow down content, dictating what customers get to see and how fast.

Arguments against net neutrality

  1. Faster, better quality service for customers. If Netflix pays extra for access to the fast lane, your movies and TV shows won’t be interrupted by hiccups in delivery — that spinning circle of death that indicates content is “buffering.”
  2. Better network quality. With less regulation, companies such as Comcast have an incentive to improve the network in order to compete with rival providers.
  3. The Internet is not a rotary phone. That’s what Georgetown visiting senior policy scholar, Anna-Maria Kovacs argued. “Consumers aren’t buying regulator-designed services, and investors won’t fund what consumers don’t buy,” Kovacs wrote on Re/code, adding that “wireless and broadband industries are thriving because they are free to innovate.”
  4. Prices for fast service would be “commercially reasonable.” So said FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, who also said the agency would keep an eye on the industry to ensure Internet companies aren’t charging ridiculous prices

Today, the FCC will vote on the future of the Internet. Here’s everything you need to know.
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