AT&T, Comcast & T-Mobile’s Free-Data Plans under FCC Scan

23 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

AT&T, Comcast and T-Mobile face FCC questions on free data.

AT&T Inc., Comcast Corp. and T-Mobile US Inc. are facing questions from U.S. regulators about offering customers free data for viewing Web videos, a feature that raises concerns about equal treatment of Internet content.

The Federal Communications Commission said on Thursday it was exploring whether new services from , T-Mobile USA and and AT&T violate net neutrality rules.FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the agency wants informal meetings with the carriers to stay aware of innovative services in the wake of the agency’s tough new net-neutrality regulations WASHINGTON — Federal regulators are looking into new offerings such as T-Mobile’s Binge On, which exempt video and other services from data caps, to determine whether they violate new rules for Internet traffic.

In letters sent on Wednesday, senior F.C.C. officials asked the companies to provide information about promotions that allow unlimited streaming of video from specific content providers. Wheeler said. “We want to ensure that we have all the facts to understand how these services relate to the commission’s goal of maintaining a free and open Internet while incentivizing innovation and investment from all sources,” the letters continue. The discussions come amid concerns that carriers are treating some data traffic differently, which may conflict with the fairness policies central to net neutrality rules. Those controversial rules, which took effect in June and are being challenged in court, bar Internet service providers from discriminating against legal content flowing through their networks. Net neutrality advocates argue that these programs violate the commission’s rules, giving a distinct competitive advantage to the apps and services that they let customers use data free; upstarts, they argue, will always fails in comparison.

Some consumer advocates and other critics have raised concerns about so-called zero-rating and sponsored-data plans, which exempt select content from counting against customer data limits. In several markets, Comcast is also testing what it calls usage-based pricing, or charging higher broadband prices to customers who go over a set monthly limit. We remain committed to innovation without permission [from regulators] and hope the FCC is too.” T Mobile said its program does not violate open Internet rules. “This program provides both great customer choice and industry innovation that encourages competition and we believe it is absolutely in line with net neutrality rules,” the company said.

The company says the approach, which is similar to what is used by wireless companies, is aimed at a small percentage of its heaviest Internet users whose streaming videos and other Web activity take up a large amount of its broadband network. In a news conference on Thursday after the agency’s monthly meeting, Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the F.C.C., said the letters did not signal a formal investigation of the companies, nor were the letters sent as part of an enforcement action. Now being tested in a handful of markets, Stream TV allows the company’s Xfinity Internet customers to stream Comcast cable programming that doesn’t count against data caps. “Our Stream TV service does not go over the public Internet. Dallas-based AT&T offers a sponsored data option allowing companies to pay customers’ wireless data charges while watching videos or viewing content on their phones and tablets. StreamTV from Comcast allows cable customers to watch online videos for free through its own new streaming service, but would count streaming on Netflix, for instance, toward monthly data limits.

It is a cable service that only works in the customer’s home,” said Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice. “It is not a so-called ‘zero-rated’ service.” The meetings will be an “informal review of new offerings so the commission is fully informed about new marketplace offerings,” FCC spokeswoman Kim Hart said. This is to help us stay informed as to what the practices are as we said we would do.” But presumably, if the FCC doesn’t like what it sees, it could turn into a deeper look at this business practice and a formal decision on in what — if any — circumstances it’s allowed.

Already, Comcast’s new Stream service and T-Mobile’s new Binge On service offer customers streaming video that isn’t subject to data caps, where they apply. The companies also can discuss “their views on how the broadband industry as a whole is developing,” and the FCC “will invite others — including other commercial interests and public-interest groups — to meet with us as well,” Hart said. The agency’s two Republicans, who opposed the rules, complained Thursday that they had not been told of the letters and said Wheeler was on a “fishing expedition” for net-neutrality violations.

Some net neutrality supporters have said the FCC should investigate whether the offering would violate the agency’s open-Internet rule by unfairly favoring some video providers’ offerings.

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