After months of hand-wringing and posturing on both sides of the debate, the FCC has issued a ruling on the contentious issue of net neutrality. Merry Christmas, dear consumers! You got exactly what you've been wishing for!

... or was that jolly greeting better directed at service providers?

The problem is that we don't quite know who won yet. The FCC is releasing details of the ruling bit by bit for some unfathomable reason, so we just don't have all the details yet. What we do have is a terse set of rules to govern broadband services:

  • Transparency
  • No blocking
  • No unreasonable discrimination

In short, consumers should know what's included (or not) in the services they pay for, service providers can set different speeds for different network services but not block any of them altogether, and discrimination is OK as long as it's "reasonable." I guess you're supposed to know "unreasonable discrimination" when you see it, kind of like pornography.

Yeah, but what does it mean?
These simple rules are followed by a brief discussion of how they might be implemented. For example, the FCC thinks it unlikely that charging fees for higher-priority network access would meet the "no unreasonable discrimination" requirement. As for mobile services, "it is appropriate to take measured steps at this time to protect the openness of the Internet when accessed through mobile broadband."

Yeah, the whole order is vague like that. The sentiments expressed seem to echo the joint proposal set forth by Verizon (NYSE: VZ) and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) in August. That's fine by me. I just wish the commission weren't so wishy-washy about it all.

Can we afford to wait?
Why should we have to wait for clarification of this important ruling when transparency is one of the main tenets inside? The neutrality issue runs along party lines, with three Democratic commissioners voting in favor of this ticket and the two Republicans dissenting. Meredith Baker's argument against the order rests upon the free market handling these issues better than any regulation:

In the final analysis, the Commission intervenes to regulate the Internet because it wants to, not because it needs to.

I cannot support this decision. It is not a consumer-driven or engineering-focused decision. It is not motivated by a tangible competitive harm or market failure.

She should find support for that angle from Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA), which is currently embroiled in a very public battle with backbone operator Level 3 Communications (Nasdaq: LVLT) over what traffic patterns it can and can't charge extra fees for.

Likewise, AT&T (NYSE: T) has publicly stated that regulation is OK but only if the company could cut priority access deals on the side -- which this framework doesn't seem to allow.

Consumer groups are also divided over the success of this ruling. A Free Press statement calls it "a squandered opportunity to enact clear, meaningful rules," and Public Knowledge frets that "these rules will be subject to manipulation by telephone and cable companies."

On the other hand, the Open Internet Coalition's only worry is that wireless broadband should play by the same rules as wired data traffic. The Center for Democracy & Technology calls the ruling "a vital first step" toward protecting an open Internet.

Some of the disgruntled stakeholders are sure to mount challenges to the ruling. I'd be surprised if the Supreme Court wasn't eventually forced to settle the whole mess after another few years of adjustments, refinements, and legal battles.

What happened, and what's next?
Some might say that Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) is forcing this entire debate by placing megaheavy traffic loads on the existing network infrastructure. Others would point to Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) and Google, and how their pocket-sized computers are fostering new online habits and another set of heavy bandwidth demands.

Either way, it's clear that data traffic is growing faster than ever and that service providers and backbone networks alike must adapt to the changes or die trying. Without a government-backed framework for how the future should play out, this would be an ugly mess of consumer-phobic money grabs and failed business models. With a federal finger in the game, there's a small chance that events will unfold in a less chaotic manner. A small one. It'll still be ugly.

I only wish the FCC would put its foot down and actually tell us what it wants to say, and how it intends to enforce the new rules. Doling that information out in a piecemeal fashion only gives more ammunition to critics and sets the project on a near-certain path to failure, challenges, and more chaos.

The best tech stocks in 2011 will be the companies that adjust to the changes ahead better than the rest. See which tech stocks top Fool analysts are betting on today.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. Google is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. Apple and Netflix are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. The Fool owns shares of Apple and Google. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.