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What You Need to Know About the Net Neutrality Repeal
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Donald Trump's FCC is set to roll back the controversial Obama-era net neutrality regulation this week.

At its monthly meeting Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission, led by Republican Chairman Ajit Pai, will vote to repeal regulation passed in 2015 that prevents broadband companies from blocking or slowing access to websites or services. The rules also prohibit broadband companies from offering paid priority services that could lead to internet "fast lanes."   

While many people agree with the basic principles of net neutrality, these specific rules have been a lightning rod for controversy.  That's because in order to get the rules to hold up in court, the FCC reclassified broadband networks so that they fell under the same strict regulations that govern telephone networks.

Pai, who has called the rules "heavy-handed," contending that they've deterred innovation and depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks, says he's returning the FCC to a "light touch" approach to regulation.

Last month, he released a draft copy of his repeal proposal to the public. 

In a last-ditch effort to get Congress to step in and stop the vote, protesters have gathered in front of Verizon stores and at the the FCC headquarters in Washington. And they've mounted online protests. But so far, the vote is going ahead as planned.

If you're still unsure of what all this  net neutrality stuff means. We've assembled this FAQ to put everything in plain English.

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is the principle that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally, regardless of whether you're checking Facebook, posting pictures to Instagram or streaming movies from Netflix or Amazon. It also means that companies like AT&T, which is trying to buy Time Warner, or Comcast, which owns NBC Universal, can't favor their own content over a competitor's content.

I understand what it means not to block or slow traffic. But what's paid priority all about?

In addition to rules that prevent broadband companies from blocking or throttling access to the internet, the FCC in 2015  included a rule that banned broadband providers from charging a company, like Netflix, an extra fee to serve its customers faster than a competitor.

Net neutrality supporters say this could lead to a pay-to-play internet, with large companies like Netflix, Google or Facebook paying for speedier access, while startups, which can't afford the added cost, could get left out. This could ultimately result in fewer choices for consumers and less innovation. It could also result in higher prices for consumers, as the added costs trickle down.

Is there any benefit to getting rid of these rules?

Broadband companies say the current regulations are too restrictive. They say they've voluntarily committed to not blocking or slowing internet access, so explicit rules are unnecessary.

While no internet service provider has announced specific plans to offer paid-priority services, several executives say they might in the future. They argue there are certain applications -- in medicine or in the development of autonomous vehicles -- that require fast, low-latency internet connections that a paid-priority service would deliver.  

"You don't want your self-driving car operating on best-effort-delivery bandwidth," Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, said last month in an interview at the Economic Club of New York. "If you have any expectation of medical professionals using wireless networks for surgery or EMS or other types of medical applications,  you don't want to outlaw paid prioritization."

If broadband companies don't plan to inhibit traffic and have no plans to offer paid priority, what's this debate really about?

Fundamentally, this debate is about whether or not the FCC should have the authority to regulate the internet.

Big companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon say they're committed to protecting net neutrality. But they're opposed to the FCC's reclassification, in 2015, of broadband as a public utility, which allows the agency to regulate their broadband networks like the telephone network.

But without classifying broadband as a utility, the FCC can't impose its existing rules.

Why are internet service providers so opposed to classifying broadband as a utility?

Broadband providers fear the FCC will try to set prices on their services or will require them to share their infrastructure with competitors. Pai says the regulations have already hurt businesses, that investments in broadband infrastructure are down in 2017 compared to 2015 when the rules were adopted.

Net neutrality supporters dispute those points and say that phone and cable companies have made record profits since the new classification was imposed. What's more, they say, broadband companies haven't told their investors that they've had to curtail  investment due to government regulation.

"After complaining about what it would do to their investment climate, as soon as it was passed, a lot of these companies told their investors that it wouldn't make a difference," Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, said in an interview. "When a publicly traded company says something doesn't make a difference in terms of their investments, I trust that they are representing those facts accurately."

What does the repeal of these rules mean for me?

The internet has been called the great equalizer in our society, because it offers anyone with a product to sell, an idea to share or a service to offer the ability to reach billions of people across the world.

How the FCC classifies broadband is a big deal, net neutrality supporters say, because it affects how consumers experience the internet. Without FCC rules and oversight, broadband companies, at least in theory, could limit, restrict or manipulate the types of services and voices you experience online.  


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