4 ways FCC’s move to create ‘fast’ lanes online could affect your Internet

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NEW YORK (CNN/AP) — The Web has been buzzing over news of a federal proposal that would allow the creation of “fast” and “slow” lanes online.

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to go forward with the proposal of new rules that could set standards for Internet providers who wish to create paid priority fast lanes on their networks.

The preliminary vote submits the so-called net neutrality rules for formal public comment. After the 120-day period ends, the FCC will revise the proposal and vote on a final set of rules.

As part of the plan, Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon would be able to charge companies like Netflix and Amazon for faster access to customers.

The rules are still subject to change — the FCC has to consider public comments and face scrutiny from lawmakers before they’re finalized. But here are a few ways your Internet service could change if the fast lane plan is enacted:

1. Higher costs: Net neutrality proponents worry that if content providers are forced to pay broadband companies more for high-speed delivery, those costs will be passed on to consumers.

2. Slower speeds: Creating fast lanes wouldn’t require broadband companies to build any new infrastructure, which means that overall speeds could slow down if certain companies are given more bandwidth in the existing broadband pipe.

FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler has insisted that Internet providers won’t be able to punish companies that don’t pay for the fast lane by slowing their speeds. But an unintended consequence of giving one company more lanes on a highway is less lanes for the rest of the traffic. And that additional fast lane revenue could create an incentive for broadband providers to allow network congestion to build, forcing companies to pay or face slow service.

3. Prioritized content: If one streaming video company pays for fast lane service but not another, customers will likely gravitate to the one with the clearer picture and doesn’t buffer as much.

Wheeler has tried to assure the public that the FCC won’t allow policies that “divide the Internet between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.'” But that’s already happening. Comcast, which owns NBC Universal, introduced monthly data allotments for broadband customers a few years ago but exempted its own streaming video content, disadvantaging competing services like YouTube.

And Start-ups that can’t afford to pay for the fast lane would likely be disadvantaged against larger, deep-pocketed rivals.

4. Better service for some applications: FCC officials apparently aren’t so worried about the ramifications of a fast lane. In a conference call with reporters last month, they said there are a number of possible instances in which prioritized connections could be helpful to some consumers without harming the broader marketplace, citing the example of remote heart-rate monitoring for medical patients.

A previous set of rules from 2010 was struck down by an appeals court in January after Verizon challenged them.

The FCC says the rules currently proposed follow the blueprint set forth by that court decision. But the commission also will consider the possibility of defining Internet service providers as “common carriers,” like utilities, which could subject them to a higher level of regulation.