NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The recent FCC net neutrality decision to classify broadband providers as a utility like electricity companies will likely mean more government oversight of Internet service, but the measure is meant to ensure all web content is available to everyone equally. It's thus a win from a consumer standpoint: without slowdowns and uneven loading times, Americans will get the service they pay for -- experiencing the same speed when they access any website from their broadband provider.
“This reaffirms the notion of the Internet as a common carrier, much like the telephone company in that the phone companies have to carry all messages, regardless of content,” said Larry Burriss, a mass communications professor at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. “The measure does not give consumers more choices, but rather ensures equal access to the Internet in that it prohibits providers from limiting or slowing service based on content or type of service.”
The FCC ruling will most likely meet more legal challenges and lawsuits as more issues need to be resolved before a final determination will be made, which means it could take years before consumers see any effect.
Since there are numerous provisions in the FCC ruling, this “will leave current service providers ample opportunity to find ways to raise rates on consumers and place the blame on the new regulations,” he said.
Telecommunication and cable television companies have fought against the new rules and said the effect could be higher prices for consumers. Advocates of net neutrality such as Google and Facebook welcomed the ruling.
While consumers are unlikely to notice any difference in content or speed anytime soon, the bigger issue that remains is the larger role government may play moving forward, said Mike Davis, a professor of strategy and business economics at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business in Dallas.
“The best we can hope for is that this doesn’t mess things up too much for the long-term,” he said. “The Internet is constantly changing and until today, innovators were able to push their ideas forward. Today’s actions leave open the possibility that future innovators will have to look over their shoulders and ask whether the regulators approve."
The ruling will not bring more competitors to the marketplace and will likely decrease the number of providers that consumers can chose from, since potential entrants will have “less incentive to enter new markets and provide new services,” Davis said.
“Almost everybody agrees that it would be great to have more local Internet service providers since competition is always good,” he said.
What Davis fears is that the decision will result in the FCC regulating the industry as a “1930’s style utility when telephone service was regulated in the way proposed today and people had to have the same black, rotary-dial phone and the same telephone company.”
Consumer Win -- And Free Speech Victory
The new ruling tries to ensure that Internet users will have the fastest access possible to all online content they are viewing from a computer or cell phone, said Evan Leatherwood, a fellow at the Bernard L. Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy and Education at Fordham University in N.Y.
“Internet service providers won't be able to block, slow down or speed up access to any website,” he said. “This has turned out to be a win for free speech, consumers and for many companies, including ones what rely on serious data transfers such as software firms.”
Since most consumers are limited to only one choice for Internet access, if there was more competition currently, “this wouldn’t be as big as an issue,” Leatherwood said.
The FCC has promised not to interfere with how companies will charge for Internet speed, so consumers won’t see lower prices. It's also highly unlikely that this ruling will translate into more companies offering Internet access, he said.
The FCC's ruling is a big deal for consumers, said Scott Shackelford, an assistant professor of law and ethics at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business in Bloomington.
“What it basically means is that the U.S. is joining the ranks of nations from the Netherlands to Chile that treat the Internet as the basic infrastructure that it is to our modern lives, classifying it as a public utility vital to both business and society,” he said.
While it’s too soon to determine the long-term impact for companies and consumers, if this is done "correctly, it will mean more innovation due to small firms not being saddled with larger bills to access the fast Internet speeds they require, lower costs for consumers and a level playing field for all of us,” Shackelford said.
--Written by Ellen Chang for MainStreet