Make us your home page

Your cost for Internet service just got trickier

You've heard that a major federal court just murdered the Internet. Or something. It's not really clear. People are shouting about "net neutrality," but that sounds more like a newfangled tennis term than anything else. What does it mean? Why should you care? If you're confused about net neutrality, we're here to help.

What is net neutrality?

It's mainly an idea about fairness. It says that no Internet service provider, or ISP, should be allowed to speed up, slow down or block Web traffic from getting to where you, the customer, want it to go.

Let's say you're trying to watch Netflix. In the next room, your spouse is checking email. A believer in net neutrality would say that your ISP should provide both of you with the same quality of service. Just because you're streaming a big video file and your partner is sending tiny packets of text doesn't give your ISP the right to modify your Internet experience.

Why would my ISP want to change that?

Running a network is expensive. Some believe that if you use more data, you should pay for it — in the same way that your utility company charges you for using more water or more electricity.

And companies that operate the networks are always looking for new ways to bring in revenue so that they can make more upgrades.

Okay, but my ISP doesn't do that now.

That's because, until last week, broadband companies were bound by a set of rules that banned them from treating your Netflix video and your partner's email differently. These rules were put in place in 2011 by the Federal Communications Commission.

So what happened this past week?

Those rules got nixed by three federal judges.

Why did that happen?

Verizon brought a lawsuit against the FCC's net neutrality rules, arguing that the agency didn't have the authority to regulate the broadband industry in this way.

No authority? Isn't that what the FCC is all about?

Well, the FCC does a lot of things. But one of the agency's unresolved questions is how much power it has to regulate ISPs, which fall into a different category from the traditional telephone companies the FCC also regulates.

And the FCC tried to do just that?

In a word, yes. The court said that the FCC was trying to apply what are known as "Title II" obligations to companies that are regulated under Title I of the Telecommunications Act, which is the law that created the FCC and gives it its powers. It used the wrong tool for the job. The court actually sided with the FCC on the whole idea of net neutrality, arguing that a ban on traffic discrimination would help keep the Internet an innovative place. But it ruled that the FCC had overstepped its legal authority in trying to do so.

What happens now?

Well, companies like Verizon will be free to experiment with new business models. That's good for Verizon, but potentially bad for consumers.

To return to the Netflix example, Verizon could charge you an additional fee for watching Netflix, on the grounds that you're using more data than you otherwise might if you were simply checking email, like your spouse. Or, more likely, it could demand that Netflix pay a fee to reach Verizon customers. Net­flix could then pass those added costs on to you.

Or Verizon and Netflix could team up, signing a deal that gives the video company preferential treatment over, say, its rival Hulu. If you wanted to watch Hulu instead of Netflix, it might cost you extra. Or perhaps Hulu wouldn't be available on Verizon at all.

These same dynamics could take hold beyond Internet video. Online gaming could become a premium privilege. So could doing academic research.

And ISPs would be free to mix and match these services however they wanted, perhaps creating a bundle of applications you could buy together as a package — much like you buy a cable package today that includes some channels but not others.

There are any number of possible outcomes in a world that's not bound by net neutrality. Consumers might get hurt by a regime that actively discriminates between different types of Internet traffic.

But the FCC isn't just going to roll over, right?

Probably not. Its chairman, Tom Wheeler, says he's looking at an appeal. There are a few choices for the FCC at this point. It can do nothing, which might be an attractive option given that net neutrality was something the last FCC chairman was really into and his successor merely inherited.

Another path would be for the FCC to ask the federal court for a rehearing. This would require a vote by all the judges of the court. If the court votes to rehear the case, it will involve a different set of judges who might be more sympathetic to the FCC's argument. It's like asking for a do-over, with the hope of better luck. There's some reason to think this could work; President Barack Obama has been working to add new judges to the D.C. Circuit Court, and assuming that Democratic nominees would be open to supporting a Democratic agenda at the FCC, net neutrality could sneak by that way.

Anything else the FCC might try?

It might attempt to redefine ISPs into the kind of telecom business that it has more authority to regulate. This process would involve moving ISPs from the Title I bucket to the Title II bucket. But that would be a pretty bold move, and it would attract a lot of criticism from Verizon and the other companies that opposed net neutrality in the first place.

Your cost for Internet service just got trickier 01/17/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 17, 2014 3:49pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Home of Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman hits market at $3.45 million

    Real Estate

    TAMPA — The Davis Islands home of Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman is back on the market for $3.45 million after a brief hiatus.

    The Davis Islands home of Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman is on the market for $3.45 million. [Courtesy of Hi Res Media]
  2. Trigaux: Halfway through 2017, a closer look at six drivers of the Tampa Bay economy


    We're nearly halfway through 2017 already, a perfect time to step back from the daily grind of business and ask: How's Tampa Bay's economy doing?

    Is there one theme or idea that captures the Tampa Bay brand? Not really but here's one possibility. The fun-loving annual Gasparilla "Invasion" of Tampa is captured in this photo of 
The Jose Gasparilla loaded with pirates of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla on its way this past January to the Tampa Convention Center. In the future a vibrant downtown Tampa or St. Petersburg may be the better theme. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
  3. Will new laws protect condo owners from apartment conversions and rogue associations?

    Real Estate

    Danny Di Nicolantonio has lived in St. Petersburg's Calais Village Condominums for 33 years. Annoyed at times by the actions, or inaction, of the condo board and property managers, he has complained to the state agency that is supposed to investigate.

    That has left him even more annoyed.

    A bill passed by the Florida Legislature would affect places like The Slade in Tampa's Channelside district, where cCondominium owners have battled a plan to convert homes into apartments.
[Times file photo]
  4. Walmart opens first Pinellas County in-house training academy


    Seminole — It had all the hallmarks of a typical graduation: robe-clad graduates marching in to Pomp and Circumstance, friends and family packed together under a sweltering tent and a lineup of speakers encouraging the graduates to take charge of their future.

    New Walmart Academy graduates are congratulated Thursday morning by associates during a graduation ceremony at the Walmart store, 10237 Bay Pines Boulevard, St. Petersburg. The Walmart location is one of the company's training academies where managers complete a one week retail course. David Shultz and Richard Sheehan, both from St. Petersburg, get high fives from the crowd.
[SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]

  5. Lawsuit: Florida contractor fakes death to dodge angry homeowners

    Human Interest

    SEMINOLE — For weeks, Glenn Holland, 67, crawled out of bed before the sun rose to look for a dead man.

    Last year Glenn and Judith Holland said they paid a contractor thousands of dollars to renovate their future retirement home in Seminole. But when they tried to move in on Dec. 14, they said the home was in shambles and uninhabitable. They sent a text message to contractor Marc Anthony Perez at 12:36 p.m. looking for answers. Fourteen minutes later, they got back this text: "This is Marc's daughter, dad passed away on the 7th of December in a car accident. Sorry." Turns out Perez was still alive. Now the Hollands are suing him in Pinellas-Pasco circuit court. [LARA CERRI   |   Times]