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What an FCC rollback of net neutrality may mean for you

Net neutrality
Tech giants protest net neutrality rollback 05:08

American consumers are used to thinking of their internet service as a public utility, similar to turning on the tap and getting a consistent stream of water.

But those perceptions may soon be challenged by the Federal Communications Commission, which is expected to roll back Obama-era rules that ensure internet service providers like Comcast (CMCSA) and Verizon (VZ) treat all websites and content equally. 

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a former Verizon attorney who was appointed to the agency by President Donald Trump, is expected to reveal plans to overturn net neutrality this week, according to The Wall Street Journal. In a statement earlier this year, Pai described net neutrality rules as creating a regulatory burden that stifled innovation and hurt businesses, saying he wanted to "return to the Clinton-era light-touch framework that has proven to be successful."

Pai has also argued that consumers want an end to net neutrality. He said earlier this year "people tell me that they want fast, affordable and reliable internet access." He added, "They say that they want the benefits that come from competition. And they tell me that they want to access the content and use the applications, services, and devices of their choice."

But critics say the end of net neutrality would spell bad news for consumers, as well as for free speech. The advocacy group Free Press, which supports net neutrality, said Pai's plan could change how consumers experience the internet. 

"Without net neutrality, cable and phone companies could carve the internet into fast and slow lanes," it said. "An ISP could slow down its competitors' content or block political opinions it disagreed with."

While Pai suggested he has heard from many consumers in support of ending net neutrality, polling suggests the majority of Americans support President Barack Obama's regulations. Almost six out of 10 Americans favor keeping the current regulations, while only 16 percent said they wanted to overturn net neutrality, according to a phone survey from Consumer Reports.

Other experts are raising concerns about unfair business practices and harms to free speech. Here are three ways an end to net neutrality could affect you.

You might notice a change in speed

Because net neutrality tells ISPs they have to handle all traffic equally, the end of the regulation could allow companies like Comcast to rely on a "pay-to-play" business model, critics say. For instance, an ISP could demand higher fees from content companies like Netflix (NFLX) in exchange for preferential treatment. 

"Network providers have business incentives to make their media products more desirable than their competitors, like Netflix or YouTube," David Choffnes, an assistant professor in Northeastern's College of Computer and Information Science, said in an university publication earlier this year. "One way to do that is to slow down or block Netflix or YouTube, making them effectively unwatchable."

You might pay more for some services

If an ISP demands for more money from Netflix to carry its bandwidth-clogging video streams, that additional cost would most likely be shifted to the consumer. On the other hand, ISPs could provide more cost-effective channel bundles because they would have more flexibility in pricing, according to The Wall Street Journal. 

You may have more speeds and services to choose from

Pai argues that eliminating net neutrality will spur an investment in the ISP sector, allowing providers to develop new services. More investment could translate into more competition, which has the potential to benefit consumers and narrow the digital divide, or the gap between Americans who are online and those who aren't, Pai wrote in a May statement. 

Yet critics say the main beneficiaries will likely be the biggest ISPs. Consumers often don't have much choice in which ISP they can use, unlike the choice they have in picking a brand of soda or clothing.  

"In most locations in the US, competition among broadband providers is poor, so we can't easily switch to a provider that will give us better terms," said Northeastern's Choffnes. "It's not like we're going to cancel our internet subscriptions and swear off the web."

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