from the not-with-a-bang-but-with-a-whimper dept
Surprising nobody, new FCC boss Ajit Pai used a flurry of late-Friday announcements to roll back a number of consumer-friendly FCC initiatives the former Verizon lawyer (and the large ISPs that already love him) didn't like. Among them was the Wheeler-led FCC's attempt to crack down on zero rating, the practice of an ISP exempting its own content from its own arbitrary usage caps, while still penalizing competitors. The former FCC had just belatedly ruled that both AT&T and Verizon's zero rating efforts were anti-consumer, anti-competitive, and dramatically damaged the open streaming video market.
That was then, and this is now.
This new, Pai-led FCC wasted no time sending AT&T, Verizon and Comcast letters (pdf) proclaiming that all FCC inquiries into the anti-competitive impact of zero rating have been dropped. In a brief statement (pdf) issued to the media, Pai went so far as to imply he was doing this not because it's what giant ISPs wanted -- but because of a selfless dedication to the poor:
"Today, the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau is closing its investigation into wireless carriers' free-data offerings. These free-data plans have proven to be popular among consumers, particularly low-income Americans, and have enhanced competition in the wireless marketplace. Going forward, the Federal Communications Commission will not focus on denying Americans free data. Instead, we will concentrate on expanding broadband deployment and encouraging innovative service offerings."
You'll find that taking an anti-consumer position on something, then insisting it was only done to aid the downtrodden, will be a common refrain from this new Pai-led FCC. In reality, zero rating data doesn't create "free data plans," it simply shifts the cost burden onto streaming video providers -- or more accurately, the customers of streaming video providers. Those customers suddenly face having to pay more money for competing services, which naturally funnels them to the streaming services of AT&T (DirecTV Now), Verizon (Go90), or Comcast (Stream TV).
ISPs like AT&T and Verizon had tried to argue that disadvantaging competitors in this fashion wasn't a big deal, because those companies could pay AT&T and Verizon a steep and unnecessary surcharge to cap-exempt their services too, putting themselves back on equal footing with ISPs. Given that many smaller companies couldn't afford such tolls, the former FCC's report (pdf) made it clear that this structure would be abused by giant, incumbent gatekeepers:
"Thus, it would appear that AT&T's practices inflict significant unreasonable disadvantages on edge providers and unreasonably interfere with their ability to compete against AT&T's affiliate, DIRECTV, The structure of Verizon's FreeBee Data 360 program raises similar concerns. We are aware of no safeguards that would prevent Verizon from offering substantially more costly or restrictive terms to enable unaffiliated edge providers to offer services comparable to Verizon's affiliated content on a zero-rated basis.
Again, for those confused, zero rating is simply incumbent duopolists using a lack of competition in broadband to impose arbitrary and unnecessary usage caps, then (ab)using those caps to dramatically tilt the playing field in their favor. Full stop. Zero rating has absolutely nothing to do with helping "low income Americans," innovation or "expanding broadband deployment," and Pai's claims to the contrary are transparent and insulting.
There's more than a little cognitive dissonance required in insisting you're a stalwart defender of "free markets," then immediately turning a blind eye to the demolition of a level streaming video playing field by giant, lumbering monopolists. And, of course, this is just the opening salvo in the latest battle against net neutrality; while Pai gets to work refusing to enforce the agency's existing FCC rules, the GOP is getting to work on a Communications Act rewrite that will not only kill the net neutrality rules, but defang and defund the FCC as a consumer watchdog altogether.
If you actually give a flying damn about net neutrality, broadband competition and a healthy, open internet -- 2017 is going to desperately need your help.