This column has been updated from Dec. 5 to note the FCC's official vote to repeal net neutrality regulations.
Though some of the doomsday predictions surrounding the FCC's decision to end net neutrality are pretty unlikely to pan out, there is some risk over the long run that we'll see meaningful changes in how broadband services are priced and consumed in the U.S.
The risks have everything to do with how little broadband competition there is in much of the U.S., and how much financial pressure broadband ISPs are feeling.
As expected, the FCC voted along party lines to roll back 2015 regulations that classify broadband service providers as "common carriers" under Title II rules. Officially, the 2015 rules prohibited ISPs from discriminating against traffic from particular legal websites, apps and services, or prioritizing the traffic of others.
The FCC has also proposed letting the FTC take the lead role in deciding if an ISP's actions are anti-competitive, although questions remain about what the FTC will be able to legally do, given a pending court case with AT&T Inc. (T) that touches on this very matter.
Not surprisingly, the FCC's plans have sparked fears of a broadband dystopia in which popular services -- whether from giants such as Facebook Inc. (FB) and Netflix Inc. (NFLX) , or upstarts challenging them -- could be blocked or have their service quality degraded on a whim. Or in which consumers have to pay ISPs extra to access their favorite services.
But it's worth keeping in mind that very few such moves happened in the years before neutrality regulations were implemented, either under the Obama or Bush administrations. And as analyst Ben Thompson notes in a lengthy post defending the FCC's plans, many of the handful of exceptions, such as Comcast Corp.'s (CMCSA) 2007 blocking of BitTorrent (often, though not always, used for piracy) and Madison River Communications' blocking of rival Internet phone services, were quickly reversed.
The public uproar such moves caused, together with the fact that most ISPs still typically have at least one competitor to deal with -- quite possibly a competitor more worried about its image -- contributed to such moves being reversed. And should such moves be attempted again, it's safe to assume public anger would once more boil, and that some in Congress would lend sympathetic ears.
On the other hand, paid prioritization -- charging the likes of Facebook and Netflix extra in exchange for their bits getting preferential treatment on an ISP's network -- could likely be implemented without a public uproar. Indeed, before the 2015 regulations, Netflix, Alphabet Inc./Google (GOOGL) and others had paid peering deals with major ISPs through which they paid to set up direct connections with ISP networks.
Taking things a step farther and charging for better network access all the way to a consumer's home isn't hard to imagine -- particularly given the billions that web giants such as Facebook and Google are already spending on their infrastructures, including on servers meant to store popular content close to end-users. If such deals were allowed, it could yield better service quality for popular content, motivate some ISPs to spend more on their networks to meet the stringent demands of web giants and (as Thompson notes) guarantee high service levels for IoT services requiring low latency and high reliability. But as many neutrality defenders point out, it would also likely put many smaller firms that can't afford to pay up at an even larger disadvantage to web giants.
Arguably the larger risk: As memories of the current rancor over neutrality fades, cable, DSL and fiber ISPs could embrace the kind of "zero-rating" of content -- i.e., allowing content from select services to be exempt from data caps -- that mobile carriers have engaged in. Many wireline ISPs already have monthly data caps, but they're typically set high enough that only a small percentage of users top them in a given month. In the absence of neutrality rules, some ISPs could set more aggressive data caps, while charging service providers to be exempt.
Another possibility: ISPs could throttle streaming bit rates for video services in general on cheaper broadband plans, in the hopes of upselling consumers on more expensive plans that lack such restrictions. Once again, the mobile market offers some precedent -- consider T-Mobile's Binge On service, which provides DVD-quality streams that are exempt from data caps, or the various "unlimited" data plans that charge extra to watch unlimited HD-quality streams.
Unlike basic paid prioritization deals, these kinds of moves would likely spark a consumer backlash. But ISPs could wager that the backlash would be smaller than the one seen if they blocked or throttled individual services. And as a slew of long-term trends continue damaging their top lines -- cord-cutting, phone line disconnections, the willingness of low-income consumers to rely solely on mobile web services -- they might conclude desperate times call for desperate measures.
And limited broadband competition could allow ISPs to carry out such moves without seeing major defections, should one player in a two-ISP market bet that the other will follow suit. As it is, limited competition has resulted in much of the U.S. seeing average broadband bills that are far higher than those of many developed European and Asian countries. That same dearth of competition could spawn fresh attempts to grow broadband ARPUs in the absence of overt collusion.
Should the amount of broadband competition in the U.S. significantly increase -- perhaps due to the arrival of ISPs relying on 5G fixed-wireless networks -- the risk of net neutrality's repeal leading consumers to eventually pay more to get less gets a lot smaller. But until that happens, or until the top-line pressures hammering telcos and cable providers diminish, all bets are off.