MONEY Shopping

6 Startups That Solve Problems You Didn’t Know You Had

These startups want to make your life easier, even if you didn't know it was difficult in the first place.

Fixing important issues like education or healthcare is really, really difficult. It’s a lot easier for companies to develop solutions for the little annoyances in life. And when that’s too hard, businesses look to eliminate problems you never even knew existed. Here are six such startups, which have created products and services you never knew you needed or wanted—and perhaps still don’t.

1. Fitness Tracking… for Dogs

You probably thought being a good pet owner just meant being attentive, caring, and taking Fido to the vet when he looked sick. Well, Whistle is here to tell you that’s just not good enough. You also need real-time data on what your dog is doing and when he is doing it.

The product, which costs $129 and attaches to your pet’s collar, is basically a FitBit for dogs. Whistle claims that by keeping a detailed account of your pet’s life—providing “a visual summary of your dog’s daily activities”—and comparing Fido’s activity to that of other dogs of the same breed, it can help keep your pet healthy and highlight any worrisome anomalies. And because all new startups are required by law to have a social component, you can also share your dog’s activity logs on Twitter.

Does it work? Dr. Wakshlag, associate professor at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, calls Whistle “a kind of farcical thing” but says it may have utility on some pets. He says most house dogs don’t change their activity much under any circumstances, but it may actually reveal significant indicators of ill health for outdoor pets with daily routines.

That’s not to say Whistle can’t also help your inside pets. One beta tester told the Verge that Whistle helped her discover their Lab-Pitt mix wasn’t getting as much exercise on nights when both she and her husband weren’t home. This might seem obvious (and it is), but without Whistle they wouldn’t have gotten to use a swanky iPhone app.

2. Laundry Quarters Delivered (for a Fee)

Over the years, many services have been created to make the annoyance of laundry go away, or at least be less difficult. Laundromats do the washing for you. Some will also do the folding. Others offer delivery service, and even free cookies in addition to freshly laundered clothes.

The new startup Washboard, for its part, sets out to tackle yet another laundry-related problem: getting enough quarters for the DIY laundry machines in your building or the local laundromat. The website promises to send you all the change you need every month—for a fee. In something reminiscent of a Saturday Night Live skit, $10 in quarters will cost you $14.99.

Why not just get a teller to give you change for free? “Banks close at 5, maybe they’re open Saturday, but they close at noon,” laments Washboard co-founder Caleb Brown. “I’m rarely out of bed by then.”

Unfortunately, Washboard was too far ahead of its time. After just over ten days on the market, the company’s payment processor balked and Brown announced they were shutting down.

3. A Messaging App That Only Sends One Message

There are millions of messaging apps out there, but few can match the simplicity of Yo. The service, which recently received $1 million in funding, allows users to send anyone they can cajole into also installing Yo a message that says, well, “yo.” Seriously, that’s all you can say.

Moshe Hogeg, the app’s principle investor, explains that he likes Yo because it makes his life easier. “My secretary, I love her, but I hate to tell her to come” when he needs her, says Hogeg, immediately provoking the ire of everyone who doesn’t communicate with other humans in the same way they would talk to a golden retriever.

Many have rushed to lampoon both Hogeg and Yo, including the Colbert Report’s Stephen Colbert, but MONEY’s own Pat Regnier points out that Yo is really good at one thing: spamming other Yo-using friends until they let you delete it from your phone.

4. Website That’ll ‘Hand-Select’ $200 Jeans for Guys

Online shopping makes browsing for clothes easier than ever. But with great power comes great responsibility, and maybe your fashion sense isn’t quite up to the task. Ask yourself, are you actually qualified to pick your own wardrobe?

Trunk Club is betting you’ll realize the answer is no. The service asks men a few survey questions to get an idea of their preferences. Then a personal stylist mails you a few articles of clothing in a trunk-like box. On the upside, there are no membership fees, and Trunk Club lets you send back anything you don’t like free of charge.

But beware: this product is not for bargain hunters. Casual shirts range from $100-$200, sweaters can go as high as $300, and a pair of jeans ranges from $170 to $250. Having a personal stylist sounds nice, but one wonders if you couldn’t get similar recommendations from the staff at, you know, a regular store.

5. Subscription to Tell You Your Underwear’s Old

As you’ve probably already learned by now, you can subscribe to pretty much anything on the Internet. Even butt wipes for guys. So it should come as no surprise that undergarment retailer MeUndies allows men and women to order a regular shipment of underwear. Yup, that’s a thing now too.

It’s not quite clear why scheduling one’s underwear purchases (MeUndies offers to send you a new pair at one month, two month, or three month intervals) would be useful since MeUndies sends its product out too infrequently to be a constant guard against a sudden underwear emergency.

Also, most consumers are aware of ways to buy underwear as necessary with minimal effort. Presumably, the arrival of a new pair serves as a reminder to toss your old undies. In any event, the company sweetens the deal by offering a 20% discount to its products to underwear subscribers.

6. A Less Convenient Way to Pay for Things

The white whale of the tech industry is something that we’ve been told will “disrupt” how the world will pay for anything and everything under the sun. For years, we’ve heard that smartphone-enabled mobile payments will soon take over, replacing credit and debit card swiping (and cash, of course) as the primary mode of completing purchases. Credit card companies and banks have made trillions placing themselves in the middle of your every transaction, and entrepreneurs are eager to get themselves a piece of that action with innovative new payment systems.

Unfortunately for Silicon Valley, it turns out credit cards are pretty awesome. They’re tiny, fit right in your wallet, and they’re accepted everywhere—not just tech savvy coffee shops in the Bay Area. However, this has not stopped companies like LevelUp and Square from trying to become the way you pay for everything. Square, the more creative of the two, promised to make the purchasing experience easier by allowing Square Wallet users to buy something at a Square-participating store just by giving their name. Unfortunately, not enough stores were as keen on this idea as Square was, and Wallet was discontinued earlier this year (although Square continues to chase the whale with other products).

LevelUp doesn’t even try to create a substantially different buying experience than credit cards, offering users the ability to pay for things (again, only at participating retailers) by scanning a QR code. Instead, LevelUp distinguishes itself by offering users deals at certain stores, but credit card companies have spent decades rewarding their customers with everything from frequent flyer miles to discounts on various products.

In the end, it’s hard not to feel like some of these apps are a solution searching for a problem.

TIME Startups

Now There Are Instant Coffee Pods for Beer

Getty Images

Coffee machines, move over. A different kind of buzz is coming to town

It sounds like a beer lover’s fantasy: all around the country, everyone could have beer dispensers on their kitchen counters next to their coffee machines, spouting cold bitter brews into eager glasses throughout the day.

But this is for real. SYNEK—a St. Louis startup that just launched its Kickstarter campaign last month—is creating a draft system that serves beer fresh from the tap even if you’re miles from the nearest bar.

The startup is signing on local breweries who put their beer in SYNEK bags, which have a long shelf life and can be transported relatively easily. The bags are then put into a dispenser that looks a little like a toaster-oven-sized coffee machine and plugs into the wall. Consumers can then serve beer wherever there is a dispenser.

Steve Young, SYNEK’s 28-year-old founder, says that his company will make it cheaper to ship beer to consumers without worrying about the headaches of bottling, and increase profit margins for craft breweries.

The machine pressurizes using carbon dioxide, and allows users to adjust SYNEK’s temperature. Beers by brewers including Harpoon Brewery, Schmaltz Beer Company and dozens of others are available through SYNEK already.

Young seeking $250,000 through Kickstarter by the end of July. Backers who pledge $299 get the dispenser along with 5 to 10 bags.

TIME Companies

Former Tinder Exec Sues for Sexual Harassment

Co-founder Justin Mateen has been suspended pending an internal investigation

A former executive of the mobile dating app Tinder is suing the company for discrimination and sexual harassment, according to a case filed in the Los Angeles Superior Court on Monday.

Whitney Wolfe, former marketing vice president, alleges that co-founder Justin Mateen got rid of her co-founder title because having a “24-year-old girl” made Tinder “seem like a joke,” USA Today reports.

Wolfe also claims Mateen called her a “whore” in front of the company’s CEO, Sean Rad. When she tried to complain about the behavior she experienced, Wolfe said she was pushed out of the company. She also alleges that Rad ignored her complaints, Reuters reports.

“I had hoped this would be resolved confidentially, but after months of failed attempts, I have decided to pursue this suit,” Wolfe said in a statement.

A spokesman for IAC, one of two Tinder parent companies named defendants in the suits, provided that following statement to TIME:

“Immediately upon receipt of the allegations contained in Ms. Wolfe’s complaint, Mr. Mateen was suspended pending an ongoing internal investigation. Through that process, it has become clear that Mr. Mateen sent private messages to Ms. Wolfe containing inappropriate content. We unequivocally condemn these messages, but believe that Ms. Wolfe’s allegations with respect to Tinder and its management are unfounded.”

[USA Today]

TIME Education

This Company May Hold the Secret to the Future of Education

Seoul Digital Forum
Guatemalan Luis von Ahn, Co-founder and CEO of Duolingo, and inventor of CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA, speaks about 'The Beginning of New TIME: Key 2, Capture' during the opening ceremony of the Seoul Digital Forum in Seoul, South Korea on May 21, 2014. Jeon Heon Kyun—EPA

It was just 18 months ago that we were living in the “Year of the MOOC.” Massive open online courses—MOOC for short—were supposed to revolutionize the way people learned and deliver high-quality education to the masses. But the idea faced a tough 2013. The co-founder of Udacity, an early pioneer in free online education, admitted that his company initially had a “lousy product,” while studies showed that hardly any students were actually completing the courses offered by such services at all.

Luis von Ahn, the co-founder and CEO of language learning service Duolingo, says MOOCs make little sense for the digital world. von Ahn runs what is arguably the hottest educational tool online at the moment, but he’s also a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Even he admits that lectures, especially delivered via webcast, can be pretty boring. “You take a lecture that’s not all that great and put it on video, it’s actually going to be worse,” he says. “Typically, the things that succeed the most online are the things that are better online than offline. Think about email versus mail.”

von Ahn believes he has developed a platform that can indeed be better online—and on smartphones. Duolingo, which turns two years old this week, offers bite-sized lessons in French, Spanish, English and several other languages for beginners and intermediate-level speakers. Users learn vocabulary words, grammatical structures and even proper pronunciation by speaking into their device’s microphone. The service guides students through a battery of challenges, awarding points and badges for correct answers. Users can compete with friends who are learning the same languages.

The concept of learning a new language through software is hardly revolutionary, but it’s Duolingo’s mobile app that sets it apart. Six months into the company’s existence, Duolingo had 300,000 active users, all on its website. In the year and a half since it launched a mobile app for iOS, that number has leapt to 13 million, more than MOOC platforms Udacity, edX and Coursera combined, according to usage figures released by those firms. 85% of these users are learning with the mobile app, which Apple named the App of the Year in 2013. “One of the main ways to deliver education over the next 10 to 20 years is going to be through smartphones,” von Ahn says. “It’s the only way that this actually can scale. This is why we put so much effort into our apps as opposed to our website.”

The mobile approach has advantages both in the developed world—it’s easier to commit to a quick language lesson during lunch than block off an hour after work to sit at a desktop computer—and in emerging markets, where many people use smartphones as their primary computing device. “About 1 to 2 billion people do not have access to very good education,” von Ahn says, “but hundreds of millions of these people are very soon or already have access to smartphones.”

The son of two medical doctors, von Ahn grew up in Guatemala, a country with one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. He says Duolingo, which is free and doesn’t have advertising, is primarily aimed at those people who can’t afford to take a college course or buy expensive software like Rosetta Stone. “We’ve become zealots about providing free education,” he says. “We develop for the poor people.”

And yet, Duolingo is a for-profit business. To make money, the company gets its users to translate real news articles from sites like CNN and Buzzfeed into their native languages as a way to practice their English. Duolingo then charges these sites between two and three cents per word for the translations. von Ahn says the venture generates hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue per year, but Duolingo is not profitable. The company just began offering an English language proficiency test for $20 aimed at job seekers, but it’s not yet clear how many employers will accept a Duolingo certification as an alternative to more established (and expensive) programs. The company has raised $38 million in venture funding.

Whether people are actually learning new languages effectively with Duolingo is still an open question. von Ahn is careful not to oversell the capabilities of the service. The idea that a piece of software could make a person fluent in a foreign language in mere hours is, in his words, “bull—t.” “If you really want to become perfectly fluent, probably what you need to do is move to that country,” he says. “Learning a language is something that takes years.” Still, he says completing all the lessons in a language course in Duolingo is about the equivalent of taking an intermediate-level language course in college. A study commissioned by the company found that people learned as much taking Duolingo lessons in Spanish for 34 hours as they would in a semester of an introductory college class.

That doesn’t mean that apps are going to replace classrooms anytime soon. Though there’s great potential in educational tools built for the Web and for mobile, their usefulness varies greatly by subject, says Matthew Chingos, a fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. “If I want to learn about the history of the Ottoman Empire, it’s harder to imagine the really engaging version of that where you’re doing one-sentence interactions around a topic like that,” he says. “Is this going to replace the way things are done now? I don’t think it is. But can these tools be important supplements? I think they can.”

Duolingo, along with other web-native learning tools like the computer programming site Codecademy, have carved out an online learning experience that feels both simpler and more engaging than the typical MOOC, which essentially replicates the college lecture hall. von Ahn plans to focus on improving Duolingo’s adaptive learning capabilities, so that no two users will have the exact same lesson plan. The goal, he says, is for the app to perform more like a well-trained personal tutor than a pedantic professor.

Eventually, he sees Duolingo’s interactive learning experiences spreading to many other subjects. “A really good one-on-one tutor can teach a 10-year-old kid algebra in six months,” he says. “I think an app should be able to do that.”

MONEY Odd Spending

Finally, a Subscription Service for Laundry Quarters

Putting quarters in laundry machine

You pay $15 per month and get … $10 worth of quarters. Apparently, it's not a joke.

File this under the category of Solutions to Problems You Didn’t Know You Had, or perhaps Ways for Extremely Lazy and Disorganized People to Drop an Extra $5 Per Month.

On Thursday, a startup called Washboard launched a quarter subscription delivery service, which is just what it sounds like. Customers sign up—OK, in theory, they sign up—for $10 or $20 worth of quarters to be delivered to them on a monthly basis. The service costs $14.99 for a $10 roll of quarters per month, or $26.99 for $20 worth of quarters monthly. The latter is the option that’s “great for high volume folks, couples, or roommates,” according to Washboard’s website.

Understandably, the reaction at large has been one of puzzlement, with people alternately assuming that the service is a joke or pointing out the obvious—that such a subscription doesn’t seem remotely necessary, and certainly doesn’t seem anywhere near worth the money. “Ever hear of a bank?” a typical Twitter comment says of Washboard.

Washboard’s founders, who say they already some customers (“less than 10″), are apparently cool with being a magnet for mockery in social media. “I’ll admit, it’s a little bit of a negative critique for the most part on Twitter, which is good,” cofounder Caleb Brown told Valley Wag. “I think it’s good. I think it’s a polarizing thing.”

He also insists it’s a completely valid, practical, worthwhile service, because many of the young people he encounters would pay a few bucks in order to skip a regular trip to the bank. “Banks close at 5, maybe they’re open Saturday, but they close at noon. I’m rarely out of bed by then,” he said.

The company follows in the footsteps of many other startup subscription services, such as viral hit of 2012, Dollar Shave Club, which sends subscribers razors for as little as $1 per month (plus shipping and handling). But Dollar Shave Club offered more than just convenience; there was a true value proposition. The service saves time and money. By most accounts, it’s been successful, and has even welcomed a sidekick subscription service, One Wipe Charlies, which are butt wipes for guys. (That’s no joke either.)

Washboard must also be discussed in light of Silicon Valley’s ongoing “bubbly race to wash your clothes better, faster, and cooler,” as New York magazine, put it, with startups like Washio offering drycleaning pickup and delivery at your door, sometimes with cookies as a scrumptious bonus.

Such services charge a premium, of course, but they save the customer a substantial amount of time. Anyone using Washboard still must do his or her own laundry, and whatever time is saved on gathering quarters comes at a 50% premium on a $10 roll of quarters. Nonetheless, the founders claim that the service legitimately eliminates one of laundry’s “pain points,” and that therefore it’s not silly. They also have ambitions to move on to detergent and fabric softener subscription services.

And who knows? The idea is probably pretty appealing to those who want to turn off their brains and never have to think about getting quarters for laundry ever again. But even after signing up for Washboard, you can’t turn your brain off entirely. After getting your monthly shipment delivered, you still have to remember to actually bring the roll of quarters to the laundromat.

TIME apps

This App Lets You Tell Your Friends ‘Yo’

And nothing else

In case you need another messaging platform in your life, there’s now a new app that lets you tell your friends “Yo.” That’s all it does.

The new app, appropriately titled “Yo,” doesn’t require you to sign up via Facebook. It doesn’t try to hoard your data to later serve you ads (yet). It doesn’t offer voice calling or disappearing images or the ability to send people smells. It literally just allows you to send the word “Yo” to other people. The main screen is a list of a user’s friends. Press a name and the friend gets a “Yo.” The app bills itself as a “single-tap zero character communications tool.” The simplicity introduces a “wide-open scope for personal interpretation,” according to the Financial Times.

The app, programmed in eight hours, has attracted 50,000 users who have sent about four million Yo’s since it launched, FT reports. Investors have kicked in $1 million in venture funding. An app that doesn’t do anything besides let you send the word “Yo” to other people may be the most promising startup since that messenger that was made exclusively for people eating at Applebee’s.

Yo is available for both iOS and Android for free.

TIME Companies

Uber Reaches $17 Billion Valuation in New Funding Round

Ride-hailing car service Uber has closed a $1.2 billion venture funding round, valuing the company at $17 billion. The eye-popping figure, more than quadruple Uber’s worth a year ago, makes the company one of the most highly valued startups of all time.

“With our growth and expansion, the company has evolved from being a scrappy Silicon Valley tech startup to being a way of life for millions of people in cities around the world,” CEO Travis Kalanick said in a blog post announcing the new funding.

Investors in the funding round included Fidelity Investments, Wellington Management, BlackRock Inc. and Google Ventures, according to the Wall Street Journal. The startup plans to raise an additional $200 million before it closes the funding round.

Uber, which allows users to hail car rides through a mobile app, is available in 128 cities in 37 countries. The company has expanded from its original luxury car service to offer a cheaper ride-sharing program similar to competitors such as Lyft and a courier service currently being tested in New York. Last December the company confirmed that it was generating gross revenue of more than $20 million per week, or more than $1 billion per year.

TIME Innovation

So Long, Charging Cables: Wireless Power Is Coming

Wireless Charging
Getty Images

A world where every room is a buzzing hotspot of invisible electrical charges is just around the corner, experts say. And it's going to change the way we live.

Late one night in 2002, Marin Soljačić was awakened by a beeping on his cell phone. A fellow at MIT’s Physics Department at the time, Soljačić’s primordial brick phone had the annoying habit of beeping loudly and incessantly when it needed to be plugged in to charge, and once it started, it couldn’t be turned off. He stumbled into his kitchen to plug it in.

That’s when he had his eureka moment. Why not get rid of wired charging altogether?

“Why can’t this thing take care of its own charging?” Soljačić thought. “The phone was always a few feet away from a source of electricity, but somehow that was just too far for it to bridge the gap.”

Soljačić got to work inventing a revolutionary new form of wireless power. After some fits and starts, he tells TIME, he’d developed a prototype, and in 2007, he co-founded a company called WiTricity that is now bringing an ambient electric charge to homes, cars, offices and devices. The technology is here, and already being used.

At its most basic, WiTricity’s technology consists of two copper coils coupled by magnetic waves. One of the coils is attached to a power source, creating a magnetic field, while the second coil is primed to convert that magnetic field into an electric current. The coils can transmit and receive magnetic waves as far apart as about eight feet, and go through solid objects like desks, barriers and human bodies.

The powered coil can transmit energy to multiple receiving coils, meaning that just one source can send a charge to multiple objects. And the technology can overcome its eight-foot range with what WiTricity CEO Alex Gruzen calls a “daisy chain,” a series of repeaters that transmit energy along a series of coils. The idea is that your phone could charge when you simply enter a room.

WiTricity has entered the market at an auspicious time. The wireless power market is predicted to grow to $8.5 billion in 2018, according to analysts at IHS Technology, driven by wearable technology—think Jawbone Up and Google Glass, for instance—as well as mobile phones and tablet PCs.

“We will eventually live in a world where we’ll get access to charge whenever we want it in multiple environments in our everyday life,” says Ryan Sanderson, an analyst at IHS Technology. Now, “there’s a growing need for powering electronic devices.”

In practice, the uses of wireless power technology are wide. It’ll be normal for entire houses to be cordless within the next decade, experts say, each room a buzzing hotspot for invisible electrically charged objects. Wireless charges could emanate from floor mats, under desks, the ceiling and our beds. In the case of WiTricity’s technology, for instance, if a lamp is inlaid with a coil and placed within a few feet of a source coil, it can be powered wirelessly.

A smartphone case with a coil could begin charging your phone when you sit down at a table in a restaurant, for example, which would have a source coil under it. WiTricity has made multiple prototypes and is working with home furnishings companies to implement them.

Mainstream smartphones will eventually be factory-made to charge wirelessly at a distance. Samsung—the world’s largest smartphone maker by market share—is a member of the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP) industry group, which is seeking to standardize and implement longer-distance wireless electricity. WiTricity and Samsung both have executives on A4WP’s board of directors. Other major smartphone makers are already bringing wirelessly charged phones to market, including several of Google’s Nexus models, though because of their limited ranges, the phones still need to be snapped in place.

Future electric cars and plug-in hybrids will be automatically powered when they’re parked over a charging surface. Toyota’s next-generation Prius will use WiTricity’s technology to automatically charge cars that are parked over a pad-like device in your garage. A number of other high-profile auto suppliers, including TDK and General Motors spinoff Delphi, have taken licenses with WiTricity as well.

Soljačić, who is now a full professor at MIT, says he’s most excited by the medical applications of wireless charging. Patients with heart pumps—famous heart pump users have included former Vice President Dick Cheney—have electric leads extending through their skin to an electricity source. Heart pump maker Thoratec is a licensee of WiTricity’s technology in order to create heart pumps that charge automatically, eliminating a major source of infection in the skin.

“This partnership should allow Thoratec to better serve the patient population treated with ventricular assist devices, by reducing adverse events and dramatically improving quality of life for patients with advanced heart failure,” Gary Burbach, president and chief executive officer of Thoratec said in a statement at the time of the project’s announcement.

Wireless power could also make operations less cumbersome for soldiers in the U.S. military, who carry heavy battery loads and an unwieldy power cord from vest to helmet.

WiTricity says the technology is ready for the mass market, but one of the major barriers to implementing wireless power is agreeing on an industry standard. Many companies are hesitant to settle on a single technology if it could be obsolete in a few years. The technology is there—the question is how to implement it.

It’s an important question, considering how long it’s taken the company to bring a large number of products to market. Much of the finished technology has existed for years, but it hasn’t caught on.

But WiTricity only joined the A4WP this year, and electronics giants in a variety of industries including Canon, Dell, Sony and others are working full steam on developing a global wireless charging standard that can be broadly used across industries.

“We’re right on the cusp of broader commercialization, with some of these customers having committed timelines and schedules to taking products to market, and we’re still inventing,” says Gruzen. “It’s still relatively early days, but it’s real.”

MONEY Small Business

Forget the Corner Office. Most Millennials Want to Own the Corner Store.

According to a new study, the majority of 20-somethings assume they'll be self employed at some point in their careers.

Faced with a lagging labor market and mounting student loan debt, millennials seem either to have found reason to be optimistic about the new economy—or to have lost faith in it completely. According to a new survey from Buzz Marketing Group and the Young Entrepreneur Council, 81% think that they’ll either own a business or be self-employed at some point in their careers.

During tough times in particular, millennials say, they would rather work for themselves. Thirty-seven percent of those surveyed said if they became unemployed, they would likely start a business or become freelancers versus 23% who said they would continue looking for a job working for someone else.

Gen Y may be already laying the groundwork for future entrepreneurship: 46% of all respondents say they’ve done freelance work in their fields.

YEC founder Scott Gerber says the results show that millennials want a different kind of career than the ones their parents had. “You’re talking about a generation that has seen what happened with their parents and Enron, and what happened in 2009 and 2010—the traditional workforce eroding before our eyes,” Gerber said. “Millennials have new ways of thinking about the future of work.”

The catch in Gen Y’s plan? Mom and dad. A majority of respondents said their parents would rather see them find “real jobs.” Gerber urges those parents to let their children try, fail, and learn from their mistakes. “Understand the reality of today versus the nostalgia of yesteryear,” Gerber said. “Instability is here to stay.”

TIME Net neutrality

FCC Net Neutrality Vote Faces Furious Last-Minute Lobbying Push

Tom Wheeler FCC Chairman
Tom Wheeler, chairman of the FCC, listens during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in Washington on Dec. 12, 2013 Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg/Getty Images

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is caught between net neutrality advocates and industry giants ahead of today's vote on his 'Open Internet' proposal, which could allow broadband providers to create "fast lanes," as both sides warn the web's future hangs in the balance

The Federal Communications Commission is poised to vote on the most controversial Internet policy proposal in years, after opponents of the plan — from both sides of the political spectrum — launched a furious last-minute lobbying campaign to influence the outcome.

Thursday’s vote on FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s new Open Internet proposal has become a flash point in the intensifying public debate about “net neutrality,” the principle that broadband providers like Comcast and Verizon should treat all Internet traffic equally.

Wheeler, a former venture capitalist who’s only been on the job for six months, finds himself squeezed in a vice-like grip between net neutrality advocates and public interest groups, who argue his rules don’t go far enough, and industry giants and their allies on Capitol Hill, who oppose net neutrality regulations altogether.

Both sides warn that the very future of the Internet — which has spawned a generation of technological innovation and billions of dollars in economic growth — hangs in the balance. The fundamental question is whether broadband regulation should move in a direction that treats Internet service more like a utility and less like a premium service.

Net neutrality advocates have been camping out for days in front of the FCC’s office, which has struggled to maintain open phone lines under a torrent of calls. Wheeler, an avowed supporter of Open Internet principles, came out to chat with the protestors on Wednesday morning, and was even photographed wielding a “Honk for the Open Internet” sign.

Thursday’s vote wouldn’t enshrine the new rules, it would only approve what’s called a “notice of proposed rulemaking” (NPRM) making the draft proposal available for public review, and trigger several months of public comment. Wheeler hopes to have the new rules in place by the end of the year. The FCC’s meeting starts at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday.

Net neutrality advocates want Wheeler and his colleagues to reclassify broadband companies under Title II “common carrier” provisions of the Communications Act that have governed traditional phone companies for decades. Such rules would subject the broadband companies to tighter regulation.

“We urge the FCC to use its clear authority under Title II of the Communications Act to reclassify the transmission component of broadband Internet access as a telecommunications service,” thirty-six U.S. lawmakers wrote in a letter to the FCC on Wednesday. “Recognizing our nation’s communications providers as common carriers under the law is common sense.”

The nation’s largest broadband companies strenuously oppose such reclassification, arguing that it would “threaten new investment in broadband infrastructure and jeopardize the spread of broadband technology across America, holding back Internet speeds and ultimately deepening the digital divide.”

“Reclassification of broadband Internet access offerings as Title II — telecommunications services would impose great costs, allowing unprecedented government micromanagement of all aspects of the Internet economy,” twenty-eight CEOs including Lowell McAdam of Verizon, Randall Stephenson of AT&T, Robert Marcus of Time Warner Cable, and Brian Roberts of Comcast, wrote in a letter to the FCC. “Under Title II, new service offerings, options, and features would be delayed or altogether foregone. Consumers would face less choice, and a less adaptive and responsive Internet.”

Wheeler’s plan would reportedly allow broadband providers to strike special deals with Internet companies for preferential treatment — sometimes called “paid prioritization” — in the “last mile” to consumers’ homes. Such Internet “fast lanes” would threaten innovation, net neutrality advocates argue, because they would put Internet startups — the next YouTube, Skype or Netflix, perhaps — at a disadvantage compared to deep pocketed media giants.

In January, a federal court struck down most of the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet order prohibiting broadband providers like Comcast and Verizon from blocking traffic like Skype or Netflix on wired networks or putting them into an Internet “slow lane.” (Comcast is currently the only broadband company bound by the Open Internet order, as a result of an agreement it made with the government as part of its purchase of media giant NBC Universal.)

Wheeler’s plan — which was leaked to the press two weeks ago — would allow companies to strike paid-prioritization deals as long as they acted in a “commercially reasonable manner subject to review on a case-by-case basis.” It’s unclear what kind of financial agreement would be considered “commercially reasonable” because Wheeler’s draft proposal hasn’t even been made public.

Last week, more than 100 Internet giants and startups sent a letter to the FCC expressing alarm over Wheeler’s proposed net neutrality rules. In response, Wheeler wrote that he has “made clear that if someone acts to divide the Internet between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots,’ I will use every power at my disposal to stop it, including Title II. I will not allow some companies to force Internet users into a slow lane so that others with special privileges can have superior service.”

In the wake of an intense backlash from Internet giants, startups, venture capitalists, public-interest groups and consumers, Wheeler modified his draft proposal to make Title II reclassification a more realistic option, a FCC official told TIME earlier this week. But any proposal that doesn’t include strict safeguards preventing the largest broadband giants from establishing what net neutrality advocates consider to be a “two-tiered Internet” is unlikely to quell the firestorm.

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