A lot of public debate has been going on about 'net neutrality' and the FCC recently voted on a set of proposals. The proposal doesn't outlaw so-called internet 'fast lanes', which has many people worried. In theory, an internet service provider could charge a Netflix or YouTube fees to access their 'fast lane' and ensure their content is delivered to customers more quickly than other internet traffic. It doesn't have to be streaming video, fast lanes could apply to getting quicker search results or a better Instagram experience. If this does become a legal and common practice, I think there could be a lot of unintended consequences.
Will fast lanes make internet providers acquisition targets?
Imagine if you're a huge tech company that drives a lot of traffic (Netflix, Google, Facebook, etc). Your content is delivered to millions of people through a series of different internet service providers. Then one day you suddenly had to cut deals and pay tolls to ensure your customers continue to get the same high quality service they've come to expect. You might use that as a differentiator over your smaller competitors that couldn't afford to cut the same deals. If you were especially ruthless, you might even drive up the price of those fees so that only the largest and most profitable companies could afford them.
Another strategy may be to go a step further and buy companies that provider internet service so that you'd have more control over how your content is delivered to consumers. Google already does this in a small way with Google Fiber. It isn't big enough to have much sway in the market, but they are able to keep competitive services 'honest' in the markets where Google Fiber is available.
Comcast already did something similar in the TV industry when they bought NBC Universal in 2009 after failing in their $41 billion takeover attempt of The Walt Disney Company. At the time, NBC Universal was valued at $30 billion and Comcast was valued at about $50 billion. That was a huge transaction, but how would it look today?
Currently, Comcast is worth about $137 billion. Their biggest competitors are Verizon ($204B), AT&T ($182B),Time Warner Cable ($40B), CenturyLink ($21B), and Charter ($16B). A big portion of Verizon's and AT&T's value comes from their mobile phone businesses, so their fixed broadband/cable/telephone businesses alone are worth much less. These are huge companies, but there are lots of tech/media companies that are even bigger: Google ($381B), Facebook ($162B), Amazon ($149B), Walt Disney ($147), Time Warner Inc ($63B), CBS ($34B), Netflix ($26B), and on.
My point is, there are plenty of tech and media companies that are large enough to go out and buy one of the five biggest internet service providers in the US. Some are even big enough to build their own. If the FCC gives internet providers the ability to build toll bridges into their networks then some of these tech companies may just decide to vertically integrate in order to have more control over their own destiny and stamp out competition. Some companies that are more mobile focused such as Google or Facebook may decide they're better off buying or building a cellular broadband network. Is this good for American consumers, and is this really what the FCC wants?