What you need to know about the FCC's 2015 net neutrality regulation

Having trouble digesting all 400 pages of the FCC's 2015 net neutrality order? CNET's Marguerite Reardon is here to tell you what you really need to know.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
9 min read
CNET/James Martin

Editors' note: On Dec. 14, 2017, the FCC, under a new chairman, voted to roll back the regulations described below. For more on the 2017 action and what it means, see this story: "What you need to know about the FCC's net neutrality repeal."

Two weeks after voting to preserve the open Internet (also referred to as Net neutrality) the Federal Communications Commission finally released a 400 page document detailing the new rules in all their glory.

If you haven't been following along, Net neutrality is the idea that all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally. That means your broadband provider, which controls your access to the Internet, can't block or slow down the services or applications you use over the Web. It also means your Internet service provider -- whether it's a cable company or telephone service -- can't create so-called fast lanes that force content companies like Netflix to pay an additional fee to deliver their content to customers faster.

Even though most people agree with the basic premise of Net neutrality, the FCC's rules have become a lightning rod for controversy. The reason: The FCC has now reclassified broadband as a so-called Title II telecommunications service under the 1934 Communications Act. That reclassification places broadband providers under the same strict regulations that now govern telephone networks.

Broadband providers, like AT&T and Comcast, say Title II allows the FCC to impose higher rates and will discourage them from building or upgrading their networks. On the flip side, Title II will help the FCC fight any legal challenges that AT&T, Verizon and Comcast (among others) lob its way.

But 400 pages of government-speak and legalese is a lot to swallow (let alone digest). So we've done it for you. What follows is a quick FAQ explaining the most pressing issues.

1.What are the new rules?

The FCC's Net neutrality order boils down to three key rules:

No Blocking. Simply put: A broadband provider can't block lawful content, applications, services or nonharmful devices.

No Throttling. The FCC created a separate rule that prohibits broadband providers from slowing down specific applications or services, a practice known as throttling. More to the point, the FCC said providers can't single out Internet traffic based on who sends it, where it's going, what the content happens to be or whether that content competes with the provider's business.

No Paid Prioritization. A broadband provider cannot accept fees for favored treatment. In short, the rules prohibit Internet fast lanes.

2. Why did it take 400 pages to say that?

Just to clarify, the actual order takes up 313 pages, and the remaining 87 pages are statements from the five FCC commissioners, including lengthy dissenting comments from two of those commissioners.

Beyond that, FCC officials say they needed to give detailed explanations of how and why they wrote these rules, because they expect the rules will be challenged in court. That's because the FCC's two previous attempts were thrown out of court for improper legal justification. AT&T and Comcast have already hinted they will sue the FCC over the rules and, in particular, their reclassification as broadband services.

3. Some broadband providers say the FCC's rules ban them from effectively managing traffic on their networks. Is this true?

That depends on how they want to manage traffic. According to the FCC, broadband providers need to show a technically justified rationale for how they manage traffic, rather than for purely business reasons.

Generally speaking, this means your broadband provider can block spam from your email inbox, block traffic from a denial of service attack and slow down or redirect traffic to ensure the network runs smoothly during times of congestion, so long as the provider isn't targeting any particular application or traffic source. It can't block or slow down access to video streaming services like Netflix or Hulu just because it thinks those services use too much bandwidth.

4. Will the FCC determine how much my broadband and wireless service costs?

No, the new rules don't regulate broadband rates or require providers to get the FCC's permission to offer new rate plans or new services. Broadband providers will still be able to offer new services and rates, which means they can add a faster tier of service, at a new price, without permission from the FCC.

That's different from the old-style telephone regulation. Under the full Title II regulation, phone companies were required to file tariffs with the FCC and wait for regulatory review before they could offer new products. The FCC said it is "forbearing" from using some of those requirements for broadband services.

5. Will my broadband bill go up because of taxes associated with these rules?

There is nothing in the FCC's Open Internet order that imposes new taxes or fees on broadband service. That said, there is a separate FCC proceeding that began before the Net neutrality order was published that looks at whether broadband customers should pay into the Universal Service Fund. (Customers of traditional telephone services already pay into USF to help subsidize phone service in rural and low-income areas.)

Depending on how that proceeding plays out, broadband customers could be required to contribute to USF. If that does happen, your broadband bill could go up a few pennies each month.

6. Is the government taking over the Internet?

These new rules don't regulate any content or application on the Internet, or dictate how the Internet operates or where traffic is routed. So in that sense, the answer is no. They do regulate access to the "last mile" of the Internet, which is the network that connects your home or mobile device to the Net.

This means the rules govern just the companies and the sections of their networks that deliver Internet access to consumers. Companies subject to the regulation are broadband providers, like AT&T, Verizon or Comcast, which sell consumers fixed or wireless access to the Internet.

7. The FCC keeps saying that not all of the Title II regulations apply to broadband. What pieces of the old style regulation will apply?

The FCC isn't applying more than 700 rules found in the Title II regulation.

So what's left? The FCC has kept at least nine sections of the Title II regulation.These include sections 201, 202 and 208 -- which the agency said are necessary for open Internet rules.

Additionally, the agency is applying parts of sections that protect consumers, promote competition and "advance universal access, all of which will foster network investment, thereby helping to promote broadband deployment."

Section 222, for instance, protects consumer privacy. Sections 225/255/251(a)(2) ensure broadband access to people with disabilities. The agency also kept section 224, which requires utilities to give cable system operators and telecommunications carriers access to their poles so they can attach their own wires for service.

The agency is also keeping section 254, which promotes universal deployment of services. But to make sure broadband customers aren't forced to pay into the Universal Service Fund, the FCC is forbearing from a subsection of section 254 that would require broadband providers to collect universal service fees from customers. That said, the agency does have the authority under section 254 to distribute USF funds already collected to promote broadband deployment in rural or low-income areas.

8. This current FCC may be forbearing most Title II provisions, but could a future FCC change that?

In theory yes. But FCC officials said on a call with reporters on Thursday that it's not that easy. That's one reason the FCC spelled out its rationale in a 400 page document. With it, the agency creates a record that could be used to prevent future iterations of the FCC from undoing everything.

And keep in mind that the FCC has to follow procedures for any official action it takes, including changing its own regulations. Those procedures include a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which must be introduced and accepted by the majority of commissioners. Then there's a public comment period on the proposal, followed by a comment period on the comments. Then the full commission votes. And at least three out of five commissioners need to approve those new rules before they can pass.

9. Will emerging services, like connected cars and telehealth applications, be regulated under these new rules? Won't that stifle innovation?

Services that don't offer full Internet access won't be regulated. These include things like cable telephony or voice over IP services, dedicated heart-monitoring services, e-readers, connected cars or the new voice over LTE services offered by wireless operators. Such services all use the Internet, but they don't offer consumers access to the public Internet.

10. Let's get into some specifics. Will the FCC put a stop to "sponsored data" deals where a certain service, like Spotify, won't count against my monthly data allotment?

The answer is a fuzzy "maybe." The FCC said it understands some people worry such plans could "distort competition by allowing service providers to pick and choose among content and application providers to feature on different service plans." But it also realizes these plans can benefit consumers and promote competition.

Therefore, it will not ban these types of services outright. Instead, it will evaluate these plans on a case-by-case basis to make sure a specific offering doesn't give any one service an unreasonable advantage over another.

11. Will wireless providers still be allowed to use data caps to limit the bandwidth their customers use?

The FCC said it can't make "blanket findings about these practices." For instance, some data caps can benefit customers because they allow wireless operators to offer a variety of service plans at different price points.

Still, the FCC acknowledged that broadband providers can wield data caps against competing "over-the-top" services like Netflix, which offers streaming video over the Internet.

For now, the FCC will not ban data caps. But if consumers or other Internet companies feel that a certain data cap policy is unfair, they can lodge a complaint, which the FCC will examine case-by-case.

12. What about "interconnection" deals between companies like Netflix and broadband providers like Comcast? Is the FCC regulating those deals now?

Yes and no.

First, let me explain what "interconnection" is. The Internet is made up of a series of networks. The "last mile" is the connection your broadband provider offers consumers to get to the public Internet. A broadband provider then connects with other network providers to get access to content on the Internet. These "interconnections" between network operators are commercial arrangements between companies. The FCC has never before intervened in these commercial deals.

But the FCC acknowledges that broadband providers could act in a way that harms competition, affecting how or if consumers can access certain services. Netflix will say that's just what happened last year while it was in contentious negotiations with Comcast and Verizon. The streaming video service provider argued that Comcast and Verizon were unfairly charging it for increased capacity to their "last mile" networks. Meanwhile, Comcast and Verizon said they were justified in asking Netflix to pay for network upgrades to accommodate an uptick in Netflix traffic.

And all the while, some Netflix customers saw a degradation in the quality of their Netflix service.

Was this Netflix's fault or the broadband provider's fault? It depends on how you look at it, the FCC has reasoned. It also recognized that the industry is rapidly changing. And it concluded that it's currently unwise to impose the same no-blocking, no-throttling, no-paid prioritization bans on this part of the Internet.

Instead, the agency said it will review these disputes when complaints are filed.

13. Have the lawsuits started yet?

Not yet. And they won't until the rules are officially published in the Federal Register, which may take a few days or a week. The rules will then take effect two months after they're published.

This story is part of a CNET special report looking at the challenges of Net neutrality, and what rules -- if any -- are needed to fuel innovation and protect US consumers.