AT&T, Verizon Laugh At The FCC's Last-Minute Attempt To Crack Down On Zero Rating

from the way-too-little,-way-too-late dept

So we've noted several times how the FCC's decision to avoid banning zero rating when crafting net neutrality rules was a bad idea, as it opened the door wide to all manner of net neutrality violations -- provided incumbent ISPs were just creative about it. And like clockwork, companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast quickly got to work exempting their own content from usage caps, while penalizing competitors (and non-profits or educational services). Meanwhile companies like Sprint and T-Mobile began charging users a steep premium unless they wanted games, video and music throttled by default.

Unlike many other countries (Japan, The Netherlands, Norway, India), the FCC decided to avoid banning these kinds of practices as part of neutrality rules, instead saying they'd step in and act on a "cases by case" basis should ISP behaviors prove anti-competitive. But as ISPs increasingly made it very clear they were using arbitrary usage caps as anti-competitive weapons against competing streaming video services, the FCC did nothing. That is, until the agency reached out to AT&T and Verizon last month, formally accusing both companies of violating net neutrality.

It's a strange, belated decision by an FCC that, by most analyst accounts, is about to be defunded and defanged. Both the GOP and incoming Trump administration have clear they see no role for the agency as a consumer or competition watchdog. With FCC boss Tom Wheeler having just stepped down, both AT&T and Verizon are well aware the current FCC is a lame duck. As such both companies responded to the FCC's inquiries this week with the legal equivalent of laughter.

As it stands, AT&T now zero rates its DirecTV Now streaming service so it doesn't count against AT&T user wireless caps. Verizon does the same thing with its Go90 streaming video service. In both instances, their wireless customers are giving every incentive to avoid using competing services. But as you might imagine, neither company is willing admit that they're using their control over the conduit to give their content an unfair market advantage. And both were quick to proclaim that if companies don't like it, they can be put on the same equal market footing if they're willing to pay AT&T and Verizon a premium:
"Other video providers can be expected to respond to [AT&T’s Data Free TV] either by sponsoring their own content with AT&T and/or other wireless providers or by finding different ways to improve and differentiate their offerings and generate consumer value,” (wrote AT&T executive Joan Marsh)."
And both AT&T and Verizon equally made it clear that they realize the emperor has no clothes, and will not be able to enforce this almost comically-belated attempt to actually protect net neutrality:
"Any doubts on that score were put to rest when two FCC Commissioners, both of whom will remain in office after the imminent change of administration, criticized this investigation and warned the Bureau against unlawfully usurping core policymaking powers that only the Commission may exercise," AT&T wrote. "Those Commissioners also observed that whatever judgment the Bureau purports to pass on this program before January 20 will very likely be reversed shortly thereafter."
So while it's nice that the FCC finally realized that usage caps and zero rating can be used as anti-competitive weapons, this all comes too little, too late for broadband consumers, startups, and other competitors that rely on a healthy, open internet. The ultimate irony being of course that if net neutrality is to be demolished (which will likely come in the form of a new bill professing to do the exact opposite), these concerns over zero rating will be the very least of net neutrality's problems in the new year.

Filed Under: fcc, net neutrality, tom wheeler, zero rating
Companies: at&t, verizon

Reader Comments

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  1. icon
    Dave Cortright (profile), 19 Dec 2016 @ 8:06am

    DirecTV app as a proxy/relay

    Some clever subversive programmer just needs to figure out how to trick the zero-rated apps as a proxy/relay for all other internet traffic. Sweet justice. Nerd harder!

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