NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — On Thursday, the FCC is expected to approve new rules that — depending on which side you believe — either ensures a fair Internet or smothers it with unnecessary regulation. The FCC’s vote will allow it to assert extra authority over the Internet to establish net neutrality. It’s like equal opportunity for Internet speeds and access to websites. No unfair fast/slow lanes. No blocking of legal services on your phone, computer or tablet.
But hold off on celebrating or gasping in despair.
In reality, the world won’t look any different on Friday — or anytime soon. The biggest hopes and fears about regulators won’t materialize. Netflix won’t suddenly stream any faster for you. AT&T and Comcast won’t abruptly stop laying down high-speed fiber cables and investing in their networks as retaliation.
Instead, the FCC will decide something in secret. It won’t be official until maybe summertime. Major telecom companies will challenge new rules in court. A long fight will follow that might stretch all the way until the next presidential administration.
And if a Republican wins the 2016 presidential election, then this could all fizzle away, and we’re back at square one: a country without strong net neutrality rules.
Experts on both sides of this heated debate see this as a long fight that started long ago and isn’t ending anytime soon.
Still, it’s worth a quick recap over the two vastly different versions of this debate.
The pro-FCC regulation side demands strong net neutrality rules. AOL, Facebook, Netflix, Twitter, Vimeo and every other major Internet company is on this list.
They create the content you read and watch online, and they don’t want to face discrimination by network owners who can threaten to charge higher fees or slow them down.
To them, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposed rules sound promising. For example, Verizon can’t block Google Wallet on your smartphone, like it did in 2011. Your phone carrier can’t block tethering apps, which turn your phone into an Internet hotspot for your laptop or tablet. AT&T can’t block video chatting apps like FaceTime or Google Hangouts. And Comcast can’t slow down file-sharing websites, like it did to BitTorrent a few years ago.
The anti-FCC regulation side doesn’t want additional rules, because the situations cited above were already resolved with the existing rules. AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon and other Internet service providers are on this side.
They own the networks and fear price controls. Fearing a bad business environment, AT&T has threatened to pause investment in its infrastructure.
Their big gripe with the FCC is that the agency will regulate Internet providers by scooping them up under Title II of the 1934 Telecommunications Act, a specific set of regulations that apply to phone companies. Telecoms say the rules don’t match the services they provide. They don’t trust the FCC’s promise that it will apply only a tiny fraction of those rules.
So, for now, forget all this talk about the freedom of the Internet. This is going to be a long, boring fight about whether the FCC has the authority to regulate the Internet the way it wants to.
As Robert M. McDowell, a former FCC commissioner turned telecom lawyer in Washington, D.C. notes: “The Internet has thrived in the absence of net neutrality rules, thank you very much.”
Republicans in Congress tried and failed to block the FCC from voting on the new regulations. But Congress itself is largely to blame for the new regulations. The only reason the FCC is getting creative with the rules is because the old ones don’t work well with our new world of Internet-enabled mobile devices and data-heavy video streaming websites.
Congress could, theoretically, step in and establish rules about Internet fairness. Even the anti-regulation folks are for that.
But given the poisonous atmosphere on Capitol Hill “it’s not a practical alternative” right now, said Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, a net neutrality supporter now with the populist advocacy group Common Cause.