Overnight Tech: FCC holds final meeting of the year

23 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

AT&T, Comcast, T-Mobile face FCC queries.

(Reuters) – The Federal Communications Commission said on Thursday it asked major Internet providers to answer questions on policies aimed at offering consumers free data by using preferred services and whether they violate the government’s net neutrality rules.Washington • AT&T, Comcast and T-Mobile US are facing questions from U.S. regulators about offering customers free wireless data for viewing Web videos, a feature that raises concerns about equal treatment of Internet content.FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the agency simply wants more information about the services and is not launching a formal investigation. “This is to help us stay informed as to what the practices are, as we said we would do in the [net-neutrality] rule,” Mr. 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. 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. Those controversial rules, which took effect in June and are being challenged in court, prohibit Internet service providers from discriminating against legal content flowing through their networks. 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.

The feature — an example of what is sometimes called zero-rated — was announced by the wireless carrier on Nov. 10. “We look forward to participating in the FCC’s fact- gathering process relating to industry practices,” said Sena Fitzmaurice, Washington-based spokeswoman. The corporate practice of exempting partner websites or services from data caps — known in many cases as “zero-rating” — has the potential to help consumers get more use out of their monthly data plans.

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. But critics have alleged that such arrangements can put smaller businesses at a disadvantage, particularly if they cost them money, and could tilt the online marketplace toward larger, more powerful companies. We are happy to cooperate with this request.” 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 usage limit.

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 . 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. 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. 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. 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.

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. 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 probe whether the offering would violate the agency’s open- Internet rule by unfairly favoring some video providers’ offerings.

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