Net neutrality rules threaten to rewind the Internet back to 2014. Is that possible?
Demonstration outside FCC as 'net neutrality' is rolled back Video provided by AFP Newslook
You might be preparing for 2018, but for the Federal Communications Commission, the Internet is about to rewind four years.
Scrapping Obama-era rules governing Internet service providers would return the Internet to 2014, said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai when announcing the controversial repeal of net neutrality regulations earlier this month. These rules, designed to prevent anti-competitive behavior by the companies that deliver broadband to U.S. homes, were too onerous and stymied investment, said the Republican appointee and the telecommunications industry that lobbied for their repeal.
The rollback already faces court challenges. But while state attorneys general battle with the agency, consumers are getting ready for a world where the restrictions facing Internet providers look similar to how they looked in 2014.
That may be the only thing that looks the same. The reality is, you can't truly turn back the clock on the Internet.
For one, so much of the Internet landscape has shifted since the 2015 rules were adopted. We're more wedded to broadband, which is coming from wireless carriers as well as big Internet Service Providers and cable companies.
Some 82% of U.S. homes have broadband, up from 76% in 2012, according to Leichtman Research Group. A smartphone, and not at-home broadband, is the route to online content for 12% of adult Americans, up from 8% in 2013, according to Pew Research Center data.
Telecom companies get the show biz bug
Increasingly, a consumer may go to one company for both broadband, wireless and the TV shows and movies he watches on phones and TVs.
In 2015, AT&T acquired satellite pay-TV provider DirecTV, and the former telephone giant now is looking to buy CNN-parent Time Warner, a content deal that faces a March Justice Department court challenge.
Internet and TV cable provider Comcast, which became full owner of NBCUniversal in 2013, added DreamWorks Animation last year. Cable provider Charter Communications has grown its subscriber base to 23.8 million broadband customers since its acquisition last year of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Verizon (wireless, cable and landlines) earlier this year closed its deal for Yahoo, adding its online destinations to its AOL properties.
Then and now, that dual role of broadband and content provider had many experts concerned that a new era without net neutrality rules could result in the consumer paying higher prices — and being denied access to a full menu of content choices.
At the February 2015 FCC meeting when the so-called net neutrality rules were passed, then-Chairman Tom Wheeler said the protections were needed because "broadband providers have both the economic incentive and the technological capability to abuse their gatekeeper position."
Broadband providers own even more studios, networks and websites than they did three years ago, hiking the incentive for them to give an edge to their own content.
FCC chairman Pai, who was among those dissenting during the FCC's 2015 net neutrality rules vote, shrugs off those concerns.
"Americans will still be able to access the websites they want to visit," Pai said just before the FCC vote to overturn the 2015 Open Internet rules.
The new rules, which will go into effect in January or early February after their publication in the Federal Register, require ISPs to disclose any blocking, throttling or prioritization of their own content or from their partners. But they aren't prevented from doing so. ISPs say they won't block or throttle legal websites, though they've left open the option of charging more for some.
So will 2018 remotely look like 2014?
ISPs and Internet content providers are expected to continue upgrading their speeds and offerings, as in the past, and prices have predictably risen along with the quality.
But the potential for ISPs to prioritize content and increase prices has likely increased, industry observers say.
That's because there's been a transfer of power from the consumer to the Internet provider -- action that could lead to a cable TV-like future for broadband.
Rather than consumers connecting to whatever content they wanted over their broadband connection, the consumer could become "the receptacle for the content the ISP wants to make available," said Christopher Terry, a professor of media law and ethics at University of Minnesota's Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “To think they are not going to try to repackage things, it’s just not logical.”
ISPs' promise to deliver expanded services could prove to be double-edged.
For instance, Verizon, which recently announced a deal with the NFL, could entice subscribers with good deals that will let them watch more sports on the go without that counting against their usage limits. That makes it less likely a Verizon customer follows NFL games via other services such as Sling TV. And access to Yahoo search, news and email could be prioritized over that of competitors.
Such developments could be good for some consumers, but bad for competitors, especially start-ups and smaller operations. Cord-cutters, for example, love to have more Internet video options, but new services could see new barriers to entry.
The operators of recently-launched subscription service Philo are concerned that ISPs, which are also video distributors, could give preferential treatment to their own content. That could dissuade consumers who want to try their new $16 monthly service of more than three dozen channels including AMC, Comedy Central and HGTV.
"We directly compete with all of the largest ISPs, which have their own live TV offerings, so there is an incentive for these companies to put their thumbs on the scale," the company said in a statement. "Because live video requires more bandwidth, a reliable connection, and low latency, services like ours are particularly prone to throttling and unfair prioritization."
Without FCC oversight, the future is uncertain
Over much of the last three years, the FCC has had some power to regulate the Net. That has changed.
In the days ahead, the Federal Trade Commission can address customer complaints. But the FCC has basically relinquished any authority to regulate ISP behavior, said Marc Martin, an attorney in the communications practice at Washington, D.C.-based law firm Perkins Coie.
ISPs have said voluntarily that "they do not want to engage in unreasonable and discriminatory practices. They don’t want to block web sites, they don’t want to throttle … and maybe they won't do anything going forward," Martin said.
All the major providers have stated such. "Some of our customers have asked us directly if we will begin charging to visit certain websites and if their speed or signal strength will be impacted," Cox Communications said in a statement to USA TODAY. "We are reassuring customers that Cox will not charge based on the websites that customers visit. ... Cox will not throttle or alter signal strength."
However, Martin said, "if there is a rogue actor out there that does do something, there is not going to be a remedy. That’s the problem."
Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.