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The Federal Communications Commission vote on Thursday to end net neutrality, the regulation that ensured internet websites and services were treated equally by internet service providers, has left millions of Americans wondering what it means for them.

Will they see higher prices? Will they be asked to pay for YouTube or other services that are currently free? And will their internet service provider squeeze out websites or services it doesn’t like or that don’t pay up for access? 

The bottom line, experts say, is all of those changes are possible, but unlikely to happen quickly. Some internet service providers are vowing to stand by the principles of net neutrality, although whether or not they’ll remain true to those vows is debatable, given there’s now no enforcement if they violate those ideals. Instead, expect a “slow burn,” said Ryan Singel, media and strategy fellow at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society.

“We’re not immediately going to see ISPs offering crazy cable-style packages,” he said. “The cable companies can see the writing on the wall. What ISPs have wanted to do for a long time is figure out a way to charge additional fees for services online just to get to users at all.”

For instance, an ISP could demand that a service like Yelp pay $50,000 a month to reach its subscribers, he said. That could lead to the creation of  “fast lanes” and “slow lanes,” where companies that agree to pay that fee would be given preferred carriage, with its content delivered faster to the ISP’s customers. Smaller companies that don’t have the resources to pay up could be shunted into the “slow lane.”

“There will be increased costs pushed out to companies,” Singel said. “Costs will go up for startups. The big guys will win because they can pay for fast lines.”

Mobile carriers could start offering you terrific deals for signing up to its own video service, just as your YouTube app starts suffering unexpected connection errors. Or you could wake one day to learn that your broadband provider is having a tiff with Amazon, and has slowed down its shopping site in order to extract business concessions.

All of which would be perfectly legal under the new deregulatory regime approved Thursday by the Federal Communications Commission, so long as the companies post their policies online. Broadband providers insist they won’t do anything that harms the “internet experience” for consumers.

“What we have brought today will one day be apparent and by then, when you really wake up and see what has changed, I fear it may be too late to do anything about it,” said Mignon Clyburn, one of the two FCC commissioners who voted against the repeal

The FCC vote

On Thursday, the FCC repealed Obama-era “net neutrality” rules, junking the longtime principle that all web traffic must be treated equally. The move represents a radical departure from more than a decade of federal oversight. The big telecommunications companies had lobbied hard to overturn the rules, contending they are heavy-handed and discourage investment in broadband networks.

“What is the FCC doing today?” asked FCC chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican. “Quite simply, we are restoring the light-touch framework that has governed the internet for most of its existence.”

The meeting was highly charged, with the vote interrupted at one point because of a security concern. Protests have erupted online and in the streets amid worries that that cable and phone companies will be able to control what consumers see and do online. The worries cut across party lines, with a University of Maryland poll finding that 83 percent of voters favored keeping net neutrality intact, with 75 percent of Republicans and 89 percent of Democrats backing the regulations. 

What happens next

In the near term, experts believe that providers will stay on their best behavior. In part, that’s because inevitable legal challenges to the FCC’s action will keep the spotlight on them.

Public-interest groups such as Free Press and Public Knowledge have said they’ll be involved in litigation against Pai’s rules. New York’s attorney general vowed to lead a multistate lawsuit; the attorneys general of Massachusetts and Washington state also announced plans to sue.

“The fact that Chairman Pai went through with this, a policy that is so unpopular, is somewhat shocking,” said Mark Stanley, a spokesman for the civil liberties organization Demand Progress. “Unfortunately, not surprising.”

Rep. Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said he would introduce legislation to overturn the FCC’s action , restoring the previous net-neutrality rules. That move, however, could face tough opposition, given that Republicans control both houses of Congress.

“Republicans calling for net neutrality is novel, so it pays to take notice,” wrote analysts at MoffettNathanson in a research note. “It is less surprising that an army of Democrats also have stepped forward to decry the FCC’s Order. As we noted a few weeks ago, if one squints hard enough, one can almost imagine… wait for it… bipartisanship.”

Once the spotlight fades

Things could be different assuming the rules survive legal and congressional challenges.

AT&T senior executive vice president Bob Quinn said in a blog post that the internet “will continue to work tomorrow just as it always has.” Like other broadband providers, AT&T said it won’t block websites and won’t throttle or degrade online traffic based on content.

But such things have happened before. The Associated Press in 2007 found Comcast was blocking some file-sharing services. AT&T blocked Skype and other internet calling services — which competed with its voice-call business — from the iPhone until 2009.

Thursday’s rule change also eliminates certain federal consumer protections, bars state laws that contradict the FCC’s approach, and largely transfers oversight of internet service to another agency with relatively little experience in telecommunications policy, the Federal Trade Commission.

Angelo Zino, an analyst at CFRA Research, said he expects AT&T and Verizon to be the biggest beneficiaries because the two internet giants can now give priority to the movies, TV shows and other videos or music they provide to viewers. That could hurt rivals such as Sling TV, Amazon, YouTube or startups yet to be born.

The Associated Press contributed reporting.

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