Laying out the net neutrality debate

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) will vote on new proposed rules that could affect how the general public gets information on the web.

Democrats on the five-member FCC and its chairman, Tom Wheeler, have shown full support for net neutrality, a term that means Internet providers can't change speeds or block people's access to one website over another.

On Feb. 4, Wheeler announced plans to treat the internet as a utility, similar to traditional phone service.

During a seminar on Feb. 10, Wheeler said there are three simple keys to broadband future. He said broadband networks must be "fast, fair and open."

But what exactly does it mean if the FCC treats your internet like a utility?

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It means the FCC would have power to stop Internet providers from changing the speed of sites based on payment. Websites can't pay more to run faster on your computer, and those who can't pay as much won't be penalized with slower speeds.

That has companies like Comcast and Verizon unhappy. They say that the FCC's new powers will give it unprecedented control of the Internet and could make it harder for them to invest in their networks — which could lead to slower speeds for everyone.

In December, Comcast wrote a letter saying the reclassification was "completely unnecessary" and blocked innovation.

Using the same argument, proponents for net neutrality say that different speeds for Internet sites would also block innovation because small start up companies with not as much money would be put at a severe disadvantage.

Even President Obama weighed in, saying a free and open Internet is as important as already regulated utilities like electricity and telephone services.

But Republicans have pushed back on the proposal, claiming the rules would restrain growth. And critics have warned that the rules could also lead to extra expenses.

"[The new rule] explicitly leaves the door open [to] an array of federal taxes and fees," Ajit Pai, a Republican FCC commissioner, said.

An estimate from the Progressive Policy Institute places a tax hit potentially as high as $15 billion.

So what would the FCC's proposed rules mean for American consumers?

Simply put, they will be able to use all of their favorite websites at the same speed without worrying how much websites are paying Internet providers to display their pages.

The Internet would be free, open and speed neutral.

— Julian Hattem contributed