The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently wrote to AT&T, Comcast and T-Mobile, asking them to a meeting to understand whether their programs to exempt certain online services from customers’ data caps are in violation of net neutrality principles.
On the surface, it sounds like those carriers are offering users a sweet deal; for example, you could stream Netflix and HBO on T-Mobile’s Binge On service without having them chew your monthly data allowance.
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The trouble is that such programs, known as ‘zero-rating’ services, favor participating companies’ offerings over others and making it difficult for competitors to reach audiences. They also go against the net neutrality principle of treating all content as equal and delivering it as such.
In 2010, the FCC introduced the Open Internet Order principles, one of which concerns a ‘level playing field’ and states:
Consumers and innovators have a right to a level playing field. This means a ban on unreasonable content discrimination. There is no approval for so-called “pay for priority” arrangements involving fast lanes for some companies but not others.
AT&T charges advertisers for certain data costs instead of customers. Comcast recently launched its own Stream TV service with a bunch of channels — but the company says that since Stream TV is an IP cable service, it shouldn’t be counted among traditional internet offerings.
Verizon also has plans to begin experimenting with sponsored data soon.
The letters to AT&T, Comcast and T-Mobile include a deadline of January 15. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said, “Let me be real clear: These were ‘let’s get informed’ ” letters,” and added that the requests for meetings were to help the agency “make sure we are informed as to what is going on.” Consumer groups and industry associations will also be invited to discuss the issue.
All three carriers seem positive about speaking with the FCC to explain their programs.
Earlier this year, the zero-rating debate heated up in India when Facebook announced its Internet.org (now known as Free Basics) service in the country. Also available in several other emerging markets, it grants users access to online content and services at no charge.
The program faced major backlash when it launched because the only sites that would be available were the ones that Facebook vetted and partnered with — reducing choice of sources for information and services for the vast majority of Indians who can’t afford mobile data. The social network has since revamped Free Basics to allow any site on its platform provided it meets its terms and conditions.
➤ Regulators want to talk to AT&T, Comcast and T-Mobile about sponsored data [The Washington Post]