Susan Walsh, Associated Press
Federal Communication Commission Commissioner Ajit Pai speaking during a FCC meeting in Washington, Friday, Aug. 9, 2013. President Donald Trump designated Pai as FCC Chairman in 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — Opponents of changes to net neutrality regulations, slated for a Federal Communications Commission vote on Dec. 14, are targeting Verizon stores in Utah and across the country Thursday in a nationally coordinated day of protests.

The groups Demand Progress, Fight for the Future and Free Press Action Fund are helping local organizers stage protests over the FCC's Restoring Internet Freedom proposal that was made public in late November. According to the national groups, Verizon has become a focus of the activities due to its support of the changes as well as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's former position with the company.

"The new chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, is a former top lawyer for Verizon, and the company has been spending millions on lobbying and lawsuits to kill net neutrality so they can gouge us all for more money," read a posting on the organizers' protest website. "By protesting at Verizon stores, we’re shining light on the corruption and demanding that our lawmakers do something about it."

Even though Verizon Senior Vice President Kathie Grillo had previously released a statement indicating the company was "encouraged" by the FCC's proposed changes, a company spokesman told the Deseret News Wednesday that Verizon was aligned with the goals of protesters.

"Verizon agrees with those planning to publicly express their views tomorrow," said spokesman Rich Young. "Like those concerned, we fully support an open internet and believe consumers should be able to use it to access lawful content when, where and how they want. We've publicly committed to that before and we stand by that commitment today."

The proposal seeks to roll back Obama-era regulations that designated internet service providers as quasi-utilities to prevent those companies from metering, constricting or boosting connection speeds to select websites. Industry watchers expect the five-member commission, currently comprised of three Republican appointees and two Democrats, to pass on a party-line vote, as the 2015 modifications did when Democrats held a majority position.

Under Pai's proposal, internet providers will be re-designated as Title I "information services" companies and fall back under the lighter regulation associated with that classification. Critics of the changes fear proponents, including CenturyLink, Comcast, Verizon and other service providers, could strike pay-to-play deals with deep-pocketed content creators and create preferred service connections with their own content partners.

In a statement to the Deseret News, CenturyLink spokeswoman Cindi Quintana underscored her company's support of Pai's proposal.

“The internet has flourished without heavy-handed regulation, with record investment and unprecedented growth," Quintana said. "Starting in 2015, the industry’s investment began to drop, due to the FCC’s decision to apply outdated Title II telecommunication rules to the internet. Now, the FCC is taking steps to reverse its heavy-handed regulation of the internet. We applaud this action.

"CenturyLink continues to support an open internet so that our customers can access any legal content from the device of their choice.”

BYU information systems professor Tom Meservy said internet regulation has been complicated from its inception and has only become more so with both the system's rapid growth and the proliferation of access points. He used a snail-mail analogy to underscore the challenges facing service providers that are working to keep up with consumers' demand for data-heavy content, like movies and music, that has come to dominate the internet.

"Think of sending a letter through the mail versus, say, mailing a dumbbell and saying you have to treat those items exactly the same," Meservy said. "You have to get both to their destinations at the same cost and at the same time. As senders of these physical items, we understand and accept that there is a difference in cost and time, but many view the internet service providers as not facing the same challenges when transmitting 'packages' of information."

Conversely, Meservy said the temptation for service providers to allocate bandwidth from a profit-motivated standpoint could end up hurting both consumers, by limiting choices, and new businesses, who would be hard-pressed to compete with bigger, established companies that could afford to enter into service agreements with internet providers.

"If you charge more for preferential traffic, those companies that can afford it will be the ones with deep pockets," Meservy said. "Small startups would definitely see themselves as being at a disadvantage."

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While Pai has asserted that new transparency requirements for internet service providers incorporated in his proposal will ensure that customers know if their providers are constricting or boosting access to particular websites, many residential internet customers simply don't have options to choose from. Tech website Ars Technica noted in a June report that over 50 million Americans have only one broadband (as defined by the FCC, a minimum of 25 mbps) service provider option. In Utah, over 170,000 residents, according to the Utah Broadband Outreach Center, have only one internet provider choice for that level of service.

While some members of Utah's congressional delegation are supporting Pai's proposal, a number of Beehive State tech businesses don't see the changes as supportive of the state's innovation sector.