In a word: yes. Wireless carriers in the US (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, etc.) have long been deeply opposed to net neutrality over their so-called "mobile broadband" networks, but today they've been given a power they have long desired to see the FCC put into writing.

If you haven't been following the net neutrality saga, you might want to find out what exactly "net neutrality" is, or what it means.

What is "net neutrality"?

It's a loaded term, to be frank. Net neutrality activists will tell you it means the complete freedom of information from corporate interference by requiring that ISPs (Internet service providers) do not give any preferential (or deferential) treatment to any information transmitted over their networks, unless it is clearly illegal or dangerous. They argue that without net neutrality, the Internet will end up as closed and stagnant as television.

Net neutrality opponents, who are often equally rabid in their convictions, say net neutrality puts the regulation of the Internet in the hands of a bureaucratic agency and stifles innovation by forcing ISPs to act as "dumb pipes" in the face of illegal file sharing and evolving consumer demands. Their belief is that net neutrality will keep American broadband infrastructure in the "dark ages" and force consumers to live with a one-size-fits-all internet that no one really likes.

Neither outcome is particularly likely, and both are equally hyperbolic, in my opinion. Both make some good points, though. But at the end of the day, as a member of the younger generation I find myself wary of letting multi-billion dollar conglomerates decide what "kind" of data I should or should not be able to access (unless, of course, it is clearly illegal or dangerous).

Today's passage of the FCC net neutrality order was a small step in the right direction, but it has already met bitter criticism from both sides. Those for net neutrality have, in particular, pointed out an important section that essentially exempts "mobile broadband" (your carrier) from the clause that requires ISPs don't discriminate or throttle traffic based on content.

Is this going to cost me money on my wireless bill?

Probably, yes - and maybe as soon as next year. There's little room for debate on whether or not the FCC's new regulatory order gives wireless carriers the go-ahead to start diversifying data charges based on content accessed - it clearly does.

The clause that carriers are exempted from states:

Rule 3: No Unreasonable Discrimination

A person engaged in the provision of fixed broadband Internet access service, insofar as such person is so engaged, shall not unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful network traffic over a consumer's broadband Internet access service. Reasonable network management shall not constitute unreasonable discrimination.

"Fixed" broadband Internet service is what exempts carriers from the clause, as mobile data is classified as "mobile broadband," while wired Internet is classified as "fixed." Tricky, tricky.

So, what does the exemption mean? It means your carrier can pretty much do exactly what this new rule forbids your ISP to do: look at the kind of content you're accessing, and control the speed at which or amount of it you can access. Before we go any further, let me be clear: carriers cannot actively block any legal part of the web from your phone - but they can charge you more for each of those parts. There's also a provision explicitly forbidding carriers from blocking VOIP/SIP apps on your smartphone, which is nice.

This idea isn't new - carriers have long discussed the possibility of a tiered-service model for the mobile web, and now the FCC seems to have given carriers the green light to proceed into an area that was previously gray. Carriers can look forward to a solid number of years before these exemptions are seriously reviewed (there's implication in the document that they are "temporary"), and by then they'll have built up sufficient argument as to how neutrality would lead to their financial ruin.

The FCC's reasoning for this exemption? Aside from the "unique challenges" carriers face in providing mobile data, the FCC cited Android as a reason to keep a looser leash on wireless providers. The FCC claims that the open nature of Android will somehow magically encourage or force carriers to be open and fair towards consumers. I think, if anything, it has forced carriers to come up with new and exciting ways to charge us for the service fees they lost when we switched from Blackberries and Internet-enabled dumbphones to Android.

How is this going to work?

What's the bottom line? It could get very absurd, very quickly, and in one of two ways. You could see the adoption of specific "access" fees: $4.99 a month for Facebook, $.50/MB for YouTube, $1/hour for Pandora - things like that. But these solutions are less likely to emerge, as they would require carriers to negotiate beforehand with the content providers - many of whom are quite happy to provide free mobile access to their ad-supported services, and don't want to lose any of their user base.

The more likely model will be broad content classification: surcharges for streaming video or audio content of any kind. This doesn't discriminate specifically against content providers, and seems well within the bounds of what the FCC's new order permits. Deep packet scanning would allow your provider to see what it is you're trying to access, and then initiate throttling or deny access based on your plan.

This would entail things like a "Video and Music" plan on top of, or as an upgrade from, your data fee. Much like TV, carriers could charge for access to "premium" content. On top of that, the premium content could then be capped at different usage tiers. You might start seeing options like "Basic 4G Internet 2GB," "Full Web 4G 2GB," or "Basic 4G with Music." The list could easily become long, confusing and expensive. The more confusing the options, the more likely average customers are to pay more than they need to.

Carriers probably aren't stupid enough to try this pricing on existing 3G networks - people would riot in the streets. But by "diversifying" access options, carriers could inflate the price of "new" 4G services dramatically on the simple argument that not everyone needs all of the web on their smartphone. It could also mean data overages if you access content your plan doesn't cover, making phone bills ten times scarier.

This is all speculation, of course, and we'll have to wait and see how carriers respond to their newfound reach in the coming year.

Source: FCC Net Neutrality Order snippets via Wired