The noise over whether your Internet provider is the reason you can't get Stranger Things to stream smoothly is about go up a decibel.
The repeal of Obama-era net neutrality rules Thursday wipes from the books regulations that prevented Internet service providers from blocking or slowing some websites, and charging more for others to run faster.
The new regulations, passed by the Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission's 3-2 vote, instead require companies like Verizon and Comcast to disclose if they block sites or give priority to their own content more than others — say by allowing Comcast unit NBCUniversal's sites to run at a faster clip than Time Warner's CNN.com.
The onus shifts to the public to flag any signs these Internet gatekeepers are playing favorites including with their own properties — and report them to the Federal Trade Commission if it looks like the provider is trying to suppress a competitor. The big Internet and cable providers, who lobbied hard for repeal, say they won't stop or slow any legal content.
But the change does open the door for ISPs to charge more to some big broadband users, say Netflix or YouTube, which could pass those increased costs to their subscribers.
In theory, ISPs could charge subscribers more, too. Forrester Research analyst Susan Bidel points to other countries like Portugal and England where Internet providers offer monthly services with extra fees for social, messaging and video viewing. Companies like AT&T and Verizon “could charge extra here,” says Bidel.
But broadband providers have a big reason not to starting adding a special "YouTube" fee to your monthly bill: consumer ire, which is quick to ignite with any price hike. In fact, the new FCC sees public pressure as one of the forces that will check Internet providers from abusing the lighter regulations.
That outrage should work in a market where consumers have more than one choice for high-speed access. They'll have less leverage when the local cable company is the only game in town.
The replacement rules are slated to go into effect as soon as next month. But expect a noisy fight online and in the courts before then — and after.
Advocates of the Obama-era net neutrality rules — including large Internet companies including Amazon, Google, Facebook and Netflix — are already planning strategies to combat the regulations in Congress and the courts.
Some in Congress say they will introduce Congressional Review Act legislation to overturn the measure. And several Republicans have joined a large group of Democrats in voicing concerns about the issue, setting up possible majority votes in each house of Congress just months before mid-term elections.
And just as previous attempts to pass Internet regulations landed in court, so likely will these new rules. The 2015 measure, passed by an agency then controlled by Democrats and led by Chairman Tom Wheeler, withstood a court challenge from USTelecom, a trade association that counts among its members AT&T and Verizon.
Opponents of the Obama-era rules, which included FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who was appointed by the Trump Administration, have downplayed fears that repealing net neutrality regulations will lead to a slower, toll-gated Internet.
The FCC's action "is not going to end the Internet as we know it. It is not going to kill democracy and it's not going to stifle free expression online," Pai said.
Instead, the loosening of Internet regulations should actually benefit consumers, in his eyes, as it encourages Internet providers to invest more in broadband in regions that don't have the best high-speed access, such as rural areas.
The public has shown itself particularly interested in the rules, submitting a record 23 million in comments. But millions were shown to be faked or tied to stolen email addresses, giving some Democrat lawmakers another reason to request the FCC delay the vote.
That "deeply corrupted" public comment process is at the heart of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's plans to file a multi-state lawsuit against the FCC's "illegal rollback" of the 2015 rules.
Angelo Zino, an analyst with CFRA Research, predicts little will change in the near term, but he expects broadband prices will go up for some consumers.
Internet providers already offer different tiers of speed, Zino notes, charging more for some.
He believes companies like AT&T will find a good commercial reason to offer cord-cutting services like its DirectTV Now at higher speeds, under the new rules. However, a "backlash" would happen if Comcast started charging extra for searches or YouTube views, he says.
“Could it happen?” he asks. “Theoretically, sure. Is it going to happen? Probably not.”
If a company tried it, consumers would vote with their wallets. Even in areas where one company dominates, there are usually alternatives out there, Zino says.
Contributing: Rob Pegoraro
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