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7 things Net neutrality won't do

One day after the FCC adopted new Net neutrality rules, consumers are left scratching their heads about what it means for their Web-surfing experience. Has anything really changed?

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

James Martin/CNET

When it comes to the new Net neutrality rules adopted yesterday by the Federal Communications Commission, people think either that US regulators have liberated the Internet from the shackles of oppressive broadband providers or that they've turned the Internet, and the industry built around it, into an overregulated kludge.

Well, it's not either/or.

After months of intense debate, the FCC approved on Thursday rules that reinstate so-called Net neutrality regulation, which is intended to protect the openness of the Internet. The new rules replace regulation adopted by the FCC in 2010 and thrown out by a federal court last year. They're controversial because they're based on a regulatory framework that has been used to govern the old telephone network. For the first time since it was adopted in 1934, that old framework now lets the government regulate Internet or broadband service.

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 your ability to use services or applications or view websites. 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.

There's no question this highly technical debate comes down to politics. On one side, we have Democrats like FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and President Barack Obama, consumer advocates and Internet companies large and small -- including Netflix, Google, Twitter and Etsy. These supporters say Net neutrality rules are needed to make sure your broadband provider can't exert control over where broadband customers go on the Internet -- or what they can see and when they can see it.

On the other side are Republicans, like Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), two of the five FCC commissioners and large broadband service providers including AT&T, Verizon and Comcast. They all say they're OK with the basic rules of openness. But they fear the US will sooner or later take a heavy-handed approach to applying utility-style regulation to services that for 20 years have been largely unregulated, including possibly charging fees that the companies claim will need to be passed on to consumers.

With all that noise, some consumers may be confused. I get it. It's not only difficult to understand what Net neutrality actually is, but it's also challenging to understand what the new rules will do -- and what they won't.

To help cut through the static, I've addressed some of the most common misconceptions about these new Net neutrality rules.

Watch this: Net neutrality battle gears up for Round 2

1. They won't make your home broadband connection faster.

Internet consumers didn't wake up Friday morning to find that their Internet service has suddenly gotten faster as a result of the FCC's new rules. The truth is the regulations don't require broadband providers to increase network speeds. The rules don't even guarantee customers get the speeds their Internet service providers have promised them.

The way things work today is that if you're buying a cable, DSL or fiber broadband connection to use in your home, you subscribe to a certain speed of service. You can use all the data you want, but your access will top out at the speed you've subscribed to.

If you want to connect additional devices, you pay more for a faster connection. If you want to access bandwidth-intensive applications, like streaming videos from Netflix or YouTube, you go to the next tier of service, which might cost you an additional $10, $20 or $30 a month, depending on your broadband provider.

But there's nothing in the Net neutrality regulations that will make broadband providers deliver faster speeds to your home. In fact, broadband companies argue that with the additional regulatory requirements, they may actually slow investment in new and existing networks, which could mean networks won't get faster anytime soon and could get slower over time. At least, that's what they say. Time will tell if that's what they actually do in competitive markets where customers can switch at will between Internet service providers.

The bottom line: If you're subscribed to a 5-megabit-per-second broadband service, your connection won't suddenly turn into a 25Mbps connection because of these rules.

2. They won't eliminate your wireless data cap.

Thanks to the new rules, the FCC will for the first time regulate wireless networks the same way they treat wired connections. This means wireless customers now benefit from the same Net neutrality protections as people accessing the Internet from their home computer. But there's nothing in the regulation that forces wireless operators to abandon their data caps and return to the days of unlimited, all-you-can-eat mobile data plans.

In May protesters picketed in Washington, DC, urging the FCC to reclassify broadband as a Title II utility service. Kevin Huang/Fight for the Future

The bottom line: Wireless customers have to continue monitoring their data usage every month. If you want to use more devices on your connection or you want to stream videos all day long, you'll still have to pony up the additional cash each month to buy a bigger bucket of data.

3. They won't stop your wireless carrier from throttling your service when you've reached your data cap.

A key piece of the FCC's new regulation is the "no throttling" rule. This means broadband providers can't slow access to your favorite sites or applications. But it doesn't necessarily prevent a wireless broadband provider like AT&T or Verizon from slowing your entire connection to the Internet.

Companies like T-Mobile are still allowed to offer a data service that slows connections once customers consume a certain amount of data each month. And AT&T and Verizon are still allowed to slow wireless Internet connections for customers subscribed to their older unlimited data plans -- which they have been known to do when customers exceed a certain threshold of usage or when the wireless networks are congested.

The FCC has taken issue with some of these policies in the past. In Verizon's case, the agency last year opened an investigation into how Verizon applied its "throttling" policy only to users of its 4G services. Verizon conceded and changed its policy.

So why doesn't the FCC's "no throttling" rule apply in these cases? The rules the FCC adopted yesterday ban network operators from slowing down or blocking specific applications, content or services. If a service provider is slowing down all traffic on the network, it's not being discriminatory. Therefore, it's not violating the rule.

But the FCC may still take issue with some of these policies. And on a case-by-case basis, it could determine that certain throttling actions violate its new general-conduct rule, which forbids service providers from interfering with a consumer's "access to the Internet."

If wireless operators are slowing down consumers' wireless Internet connections for any reason, the FCC's updated transparency rule requires they disclose this policy and how they're implementing it.

The bottom line: Wireless operators will still be allowed to slow your mobile Internet connection in certain instances. But they'll have to tell you that they're doing it and why.

4. They won't create competition.

Most consumers will tell you what they really want is more choice in terms of where they get their broadband service. This is particularly true for home broadband services.

Unfortunately, the Net neutrality rules won't help add competitors to the market. In fact, the FCC voted at its previous meeting in January to change the standard speed of broadband from 4Mbps to 25Mbps. This means even fewer Americans have access to two or more services that offer what the FCC considers "true broadband." For most consumers, there's only one real broadband choice: cable.

So what's the FCC doing to promote competition? The agency recognizes more competition is needed in the broadband market, and it's been hard at work crafting policy it says will help promote competition. During the same meeting at which the Net neutrality rules were adopted, the FCC also passed a measure that strikes down state laws limiting local communities from expanding municipally owned gigabit networks in two southern states. The idea is that local communities should be able to build their own high-speed broadband networks if they want to. And they shouldn't be prevented from doing so as the result of a state law passed because broadband providers in a particular state want to limit competition.

The agency is also in the midst of drafting rules for an upcoming wireless-spectrum auction, which it says will help broaden spectrum ownership and encourage competition in the mobile industry.

The bottom line: The FCC's Net neutrality rules do not regulate new competition into existence. Critics would even argue that the rules discourage competition, because of a regulatory framework that was built for the old telephone network. They call the regulation onerous and say it will prevent operators from investing in their networks, and beyond that could make it more expensive and difficult for new companies to build networks to compete against existing players.

5. They won't improve your Friday night Netflix viewing

The Internet is what's considered a best-effort network. This means that once data is chopped into packets of information for transmission across the network, all those packets have to jockey for access on that network. Think of the Internet as a highway. And the packets of data carrying the latest episode of "House of Cards" are the cars.

Emotions have run high over Net neutrality. Here, protesters interrupt a meeting of the FCC commissioners on December 11, 2014. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

These packets are traveling on the same highway as your neighbor's Google searches and Instagram uploads. If everyone is using the network or highway at the same time, your "House of Cards" packets could get stuck in a traffic jam. And the episode you're trying to stream will freeze and buffer.

There are two possible solutions to this problem: your broadband provider can build a bigger highway with more lanes to alleviate traffic jams during peak times, or it could create the equivalent of an HOV lane to let some traffic get priority access to move through the congestion more quickly.

The public and many Internet companies rejected this idea of creating so-called "fast lanes," arguing it would only intensify the congestion for the rest of the services using the other lanes on the Internet. The FCC's Wheeler said he heard these concerns during the open comment period on his original Net neutrality proposal. As a result, the new rules explicitly forbid broadband providers from offering priority service. This means your streaming video from Netflix will still travel on the same highway as your neighbor's Google content.

But at the same time, the rules also don't require broadband providers to build more lanes to accommodate more traffic.

What does this mean for you? During peak times of day, your broadband connection may still experience some congestion. What's more, because the Internet is a series of networks (or roads), the packets of video that make up your streaming episode of "House of Cards" could hit traffic jams anywhere along their journey. So your Netflix video could still be delayed due to a traffic jam, even if your local broadband network is congestion-free.

The new rules did extend the FCC's authority to help settle disputes between network operators that must interconnect with each other to deliver content, like streaming video. But there's nothing in the rules that requires broadband providers to add infrastructure to handle larger volumes of traffic.

The bottom line: Consumers are still likely to experience buffering and other hiccups when accessing delay-sensitive applications, like Netflix or Skype, during peak periods.

6. They won't stop the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger.

In addition to crafting new Net neutrality rules, the FCC has also considered the proposed merger between cable giants Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Supporters of Net neutrality have pointed to this merger between the nation's two largest cable operators as a reason why Net neutrality rules are needed. They argue that as the industry consolidates and companies like Comcast become more powerful, it's necessary to have rules of the road in place to prevent big companies from using their market power to dictate which applications and services consumers can use on the Internet.

This argument may or may not be true. But the action the FCC took Thursday won't have any effect on whether the agency will approve the megamerger. In fact, most analysts believe the merger will be approved by both the FCC and the Justice Department.

The bottom line: The communications industry will keep consolidating.

7. What will change as a result of these new rules?

Nothing. That's the whole point. The Internet has always operated on this basic principle of openness, or Net neutrality. The decadelong debate over how to implement Net neutrality has really been a battle to make certain a level of openness is preserved. And the way to preserve it is by establishing rules of the road that let ISPs, consumers and innovators know what's allowed and what's not allowed on the Net.

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.