WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission is expected to repeal net neutrality rules Thursday, a move that will likely have major implications for internet service providers, startups and consumers.
The hotly contested move centers on a set of regulations passed in 2015 by a Democratic-controlled FCC that prohibited broadband companies from blocking websites, slowing connection speeds and charging for faster delivery of content.
To enforce the rules, the FCC classified broadband as a more highly regulated utility-like service under Title 2 of federal telecommunications law.
But in January, President Donald Trump appointed Ajit Pai, a Republican and outspoken advocate for the repeal of net neutrality’s regulations, as FCC chairman. He’s argued that the fears behind the 2015 decision were "hysterical prophecies of doom" and said the "overhang of heavy-handed regulation" imposed by the FCC hurt the broadband industry and prevented investment in expanded networks.
Thursday’s vote is expected to fall along party lines, and the FCC is now controlled by a Republican majority.
Here’s who could win or lose under the new rules:
• WINNER: Internet service providers
A major point of concern for net neutrality advocates is the idea of paid prioritization - the concept that a telecommunications company could charge an additional fee to transport certain forms of content at a higher speed through its network.
Broadband companies and other internet service providers say they have no plans to offer paid prioritization, but some have been laying the groundwork for it in recent months.
Broadband for America, a coalition of telecommunications industry groups and companies such as AT&T Inc., Charter Communications Inc. and Comcast Corp., ran a full-page ad in The Washington Post that made commitments to customers to practices it said would preserve an "open internet."
Those included "no blocking of legal content," "not throttling" data speeds and "no unfair discrimination" - but did not mention paid prioritization. For years, Comcast’s net neutrality web page had a commitment that the company wouldn’t prioritize internet traffic; that disappeared the day Pai unveiled his plan to repeal net neutrality rules.
• WINNER: Large content providers
If net neutrality regulations are repealed, content providers such as Netflix or Google could end up paying more to ensure customers get the same service speed. In fact, both of these companies have lined up in favor of net neutrality - over the summer, Netflix posted a banner on its homepage showing its support, while Google elaborated on its views in a post on its public policy blog.
The Internet Association, a trade group representing Amazon, Facebook, Google and other online companies, has said in an FCC filing that fast lanes would lead to the "cable-ization" of the internet because online content providers would have to negotiate deals with internet service providers to reach customers effectively.
But some of those same large content providers also have the money and the leverage of thousands of subscribers to negotiate deals with internet service providers, get in the so-called fast lanes for service speed and possibly give themselves a leg up on the competition. And networks like NBC, which is owned by Comcast, could potentially work with internet service providers to increase their speeds.
• WINNER: Connection sensitive services
Pai singled out companies that provide services dependent on fast service, such as those that perform remote health monitoring of people with serious illnesses, as potential beneficiaries of the repeal. FCC officials have said a repeal could help advance the development of new technologies such as autonomous vehicles, which need guaranteed internet connections.
"By ending the outright ban on paid prioritization, we hope to make it easier for consumers to benefit from services that need prioritization - such as latency-sensitive telemedicine," he said in a recent speech.
• LOSER: Startups
Opponents of repeal say the so-called toll lanes could squeeze out burgeoning startups, which don’t have the money or influence to pay for faster content delivery.
In November, hundreds of companies, including tech companies Airbnb, Foursquare and Etsy, signed a letter to Pai urging the FCC to retain the net neutrality regulations. The letter specifically noted that the regulation rollback could put small- to medium-sized businesses at a disadvantage.
"Without these rules, internet service providers will be able to favor certain web sites and e-businesses, or the platforms they use to garner new customers, over others by putting the ones that can pay in fast lanes and slowing down or even blocking others," the letter states.
• TO BE DETERMINED: Consumers
Free-market advocates say paid prioritization in other industries, such as highway toll roads, have spurred investment that benefit the larger public. In this case, that could mean more investment in broadband infrastructure, such as expanding and improving wireless and fiber networks that would increase internet access and overall data speeds.
But supporters of net neutrality say consumers could be charged extra to stream certain content if they don’t want to be hampered by network congestion. Others have warned that customer choice of internet service providers could shrink and prices of broadband service could increase.
"Net neutrality rules keep the internet open for all and ensure consumers can access the web sites and apps they - not their Internet service provider - choose," Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, told The Los Angeles Times in April.