WASHINGTON, D.C. - Last-minute protests are not likely to stop the Federal Communications Commission from repealing net neutrality rules next week, a move that could affect the speed and price of your internet connection.
Protests have been held at Verizon stores across the country, and a demonstration was planned for the FCC chairman’s annual dinner in Washington on Thursday night.
The FCC is expected to vote to repeal net neutrality regulations Dec. 14. The regulations were adopted by the commission in 2015 under President Obama.
The FCC would be undoing restrictions that prohibit internet service providers from charging different rates for online access based on how subscribers use the web. Internet providers cannot block access to websites and apps under the 2015 rules. They also are not allowed to “throttle,” which is the deliberate slowing of internet speed that can enable providers to charge a premium for faster-loading content.
The vote is likely to split on party lines with the three Republican members voting to undo the rules and the two Democrats on the commission voting to keep them.
Supporters of net neutrality are singling out Verizon for its opposition to the 2015 net neutrality rules and because FCC Chairman Ajit Pai once served as associate general counsel for the company.
Verizon has said it supports the concept of net neutrality but opposes the regulations, saying they were unnecessary and threaten the internet’s ability to evolve to meet consumers’ needs.
Pai says the rules have slowed the pace of innovation and investment in broadband internet, especially in rural areas and low-income urban neighborhoods where networks are not as robust.
“The internet wasn't broken in 2015 to justify the adoption of these new rules," Pai said. “Ultimately, I think the repeal of these regulations will make for better, faster, cheaper internet access for all Americans.”
He points to a study that found capital investment from the 12 biggest broadband companies dropped 5.6 percent since 2014 after years of growth.
Supporters of net neutrality dispute those findings, pointing to individual companies’ quarterly reports and statements to shareholders about net neutrality not affecting investments. Some company leaders reported a growth in spending in the past two years.
Pai's plan would remove the ban on companies blocking or throttling internet content but would require companies to disclose if they do it, although that information could end up buried in the pages of service agreement fine print.
Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, supports preserving net neutrality rules. Without them, he says internet service providers will find ways of charging customers different amounts based on how they use the internet, upping billing rates for faster speeds. He does not believe broadband companies will abide by the pledges that many have made to avoid practices currently forbidden by net neutrality regulations.
“If they start being able to raise these prices, all these special fees, all these tolls, it’s going to hit us in the wallet,” Aaron said.
Pai said the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general would be able to guard against abusive practices by broadband providers.
"We don't want to make sure every company has a free pass, we want to make sure there's a cop on the beat," Pai said.
The FCC chairman is trying to answer the backlash to his plan to repeal the rules put in place two years ago, aware of polls showing most consumers support keeping net neutrality regulations.
"There is a lot of misinformation out there," Pai said. "If you go around peddling stories like the internet is about to be broken, democracy is about to be threatened, and oh this independent agency in far away Washington is doing it, that obviously is not going to be a popular message.”
Defenders of net neutrality say they are not exaggerating the potential impacts of the FCC rolling back the rules.
"We think what Chairman Pai is proposing is a fundamental existential threat to the Internet," Aaron said.
The debate is not likely to end with the FCC vote, with supporters planning to immediately move their fight to court to prevent the dismantling of net neutrality rules.