Over the next few months, a single federal agency will begin to fundamentally alter the nation's communications and mass-media landscape, rewriting a broad swath of rules that affect the choices consumers have for getting online and the variety of television and radio programming they watch and hear.
If all of the changes being reviewed by the Federal Communications Commission are enacted as proposed, major telecommunications and media corporations will be less regulated, and more free to grow, than at any time in decades.
The rules in question govern how much telephone companies need to open their lines to competitors for local phone and high-speed Internet service, set restrictions on how many TV and radio stations can be owned by one company, and determine whether a company can own both newspapers and TV stations that serve the same community.
FCC officials say they expect to begin making decisions as early as February, after more than a year of intense debate and lobbying over sharply different visions of the best way to spur growth and competition in the country's information economy.
Opponents of the proposed rules fear that, taken together, they ultimately could lead to a few powerful conglomerates controlling the flow of electronic information, from programming of television and radio news and entertainment to owning the pipes that connect people to the Internet.