Senators Wyden And Markey Make It Clear AT&T Is Violating Net Neutrality

from the ill-communication dept

For years now, AT&T has imposed arbitrary broadband monthly usage caps and costly overage fees -- but not if you use the company's own streaming TV service. As a result, when you use AT&T's own streaming TV platforms, you won't see any limits. But try to use an AT&T competitor like Amazon, Hulu, or Netflix, and you'll face monthly limits and usage surcharges. Like many big ISPs, AT&T has temporarily lifted its caps on fixed-line broadband networks, but is expected to quietly return to the practice once things semi-normalize.

AT&T has confirmed that the same approach will be applied to AT&T's latest streaming TV service, HBO Max. Use AT&T's broadband service and AT&T's HBO Max? No arbitrary, unnecessary, or costly restrictions. Use AT&T's broadband service but want to use Netflix instead? Suddenly you're facing annoying restrictions and a higher monthly bill. AT&T also lets deep-pocketed companies pay for exclusion from usage caps, something that disadvantages smaller competitors.

AT&T's been doing this for several years without penalty, so the extension to its newest streaming service isn't surprising. But last week Senators Ron Wyden, Ed Markey, and Richard Blumenthal fired off a letter to outgoing AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson (pdf), asking the company to explain how giving preferential treatment to its own services isn't a terrible precedent:

"According to AT&T, HBO Max is benefiting from AT&T’s “sponsored data" system, which allows content companies to pay AT&T for the right to be exempt from data caps. Although HBO Max may technically be paying for this benefit, AT&T is essentially paying itself. This practice of allowing one arm of your company to “pay” another arm of your company for preferential treatment attempts to mask its true impact. The Trump FCC may have gutted critical net neutrality protections, but AT&T nonetheless has a responsibility to avoid any policies or practices that harm consumers and stifle competition. We urge you to provide us with an explanation for the behavior described above by June 25, 2020."

Several other ISPs (like Comcast) have engaged in similar behavior. When pressed, they'll usually trot out a pseudo-technical justification for the practice, insisting that because much of this traffic only touches an ISP's own network, usage caps need not apply. That's not only nonsensical, it ignores the fact that there's simply no technical justification for caps and usage charges in the first place. None. Such limits don't manage congestion. They're simply arbitrary price hikes imposed in uncompetitive markets. And they're not a useful price differentiator either (that's what speed tiers and business class service is for).

AT&T knows full well that since its lobbyists just got done convincing the FCC to effectively not just gut net neutrality rules but also the FCC's authority over telecom, there's nothing the FCC can do about any of this. And users can't really punish AT&T via "the market," because they have no competing ISP to flee to. That leaves either Congress, which is awash in AT&T campaign contributions (making it extremely unlikely we see a net neutrality law anytime soon), and states, whose responses will range from inconsistent to nonexistent.

However folks attempt to justify this, it's an entrenched telecom monopoly imposing arbitrary limits, then selectively removing them to give their own platforms an unfair market advantage. And because AT&T has incredible sway over the lion's share of regulators and lawmakers, nobody's going to do a damn thing about any of it beyond a few polite letters.

Filed Under: data cap, hbo max, net neutrality, playing favorites, ron wyden, sponsored data, zero rating
Companies: at&t


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Jun 2020 @ 6:17am

    Why not Disney?

    What I don't see is AT&T throttling Disney+. I can see two reasons:

    1) Disney+ does not have enough subscribers YET.(is not a Huge competitor) and

    2) Disney is HUGE as a corporation and they don't want to get into lawsuits with Disney and cause a real meaningful change to Net Neutrality (and hurt their pocketbooks even more).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 11 Jun 2020 @ 8:34am

      Re: Why not Disney?

      "1) Disney+ does not have enough subscribers YET.(is not a Huge competitor) "

      Erm, they have more than Hulu.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      deadspatula (profile), 11 Jun 2020 @ 8:43am

      Re: Why not Disney?

      Subjecting Disney+ to data caps is the concern. And I have seen no evidence Disney+ is exempted from data caps. Most people are just always on Wi-fi since the launch, because for some reason people aren't out and about right now, so AT&T's mobile data caps haven't been a concern. Some thing about a pandemic or something.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 11 Jun 2020 @ 10:16am

        Re: Re: Why not Disney?

        This isn't specifically about mobile data, in fact, it is rather directly about broadband.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 11 Jun 2020 @ 9:14am

      Re: Why not Disney?

      Lawsuits are expensive. AT&T will charge Disney a fee for access to AT&T subscribers and Disney will pay it.
      None of this will be quick. It will slowly happen. Till internet start looking a lot like TV packages.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 11 Jun 2020 @ 7:54am

    With everyone's attention on the pandemic and protests, AT&T and Cox have decided to test the waters of violating net neutrality. This is something that should be brought to the attention of our representatives and the people.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Jun 2020 @ 8:14am

    If they respond, I would expect the response to talk up the "consumer benefits" of not having to pay extra for HBO Max.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 11 Jun 2020 @ 9:18am

    If only there were some sort of government agency that could publish the ACTUAL costs paid for bandwidth & question why the government has made monopolies with no oversight as they screw consumers over consistently.

    Lets just vote them all out & keep voting out those who put getting donations ahead of doing whats best for the voters.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Jun 2020 @ 10:16am

    Why does techdirt have to be so political?

    (i probably need an /s here)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Jun 2020 @ 10:47am

    once that asshole Pai got in charge of the FCC, brought about the destruction of Net Neutrality and all the associated rules that his predecessor had put in place to do what the FCC is supposed to do, ie look after the customers, the people, rather than these leeching companies and those in Congress giving them all the say, the USA broadband market was an even bigger cash cow, for companies and a few individuals, than before! we have the highest charges for the worst service, the worst customer service and repairs, as well as the slowest and lowest 'upgrade' connections of the non 3rd world countries! any wonder people think of us as a laughing stock?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Dave, 13 Jun 2020 @ 12:51pm

    There is no net neutrality in the US anymore. The US is a capitalist dictatorship.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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