The government’s most important media regulator just sent a clear message to America’s biggest wireless companies: Your free data streaming programs are a violation of net neutrality.
The question, though: Will it matter?
In letters to AT&T and Verizon sent Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission made it clear to the telecom giants that their free streaming programs are a violation of the rules put in place to ensure net neutrality.
It’s the most aggressive stance yet against so-called “zero rating,” in which people can stream certain content over their phone, without it counting against their data plans. While these programs are somewhat popular with consumers, they’ve also created concern that companies could use these programs to favor their own content, and force other companies to pay up.
These programs are seen as particularly crucial to the future of telecom and media, given how quickly consumers are adopting smartphones as platforms to stream data-intensive video.
The letters, which Mashable acquired from the FCC, detail how AT&T and Verizon are using their programs to create an unfair advantage, thus violating rules put in place to ensure the internet remains a level playing field for all companies and their customers.
Writing to AT&T, the FCC’s head of its wireless telecoms bureau dropped the hammer. The regulator and the company had been in conversation over AT&T’s sponsored data program.
[…] the Sponsored Data program strongly favors AT&T’s own video offerings while unreasonably discriminating against unaffiliated edge providers and limiting their ability to offer competing video services to AT&T’s broadband subscribers on a level playing field. We have therefore reached the preliminary conclusion that these practices inhibit competition, harm consumers, and interfere with the “virtuous cycle” needed to assure the continuing benefits of the Open Internet.
To Verizon, Wilkins was slightly kinder, but not by much.
[…] Verizon seems to be “acting in ways that may harm the open Internet, such as preferring [its] own or affiliated content [and] demanding fees from edge providers.”
Both letters say the same thing these programs give an unfair advantage to each companies’ own content, while making other companies pay up for the same benefit. Think of AT&T and Verizon as toll roads that their company cars ride for free, but cost other companies to do the same.
The FCC has asked both AT&T and Verizon to respond by December 15.
The problem here: the FCC may be running out of time. AT&T and Verizon will almost certainly disagree with the FCC, and drag out any proceedings, and do so knowing that the FCC is in for a major overhaul under Donald Trump.
Once inaugurated, Trump will appoint five new FCC commissioners, including a chairperson. So far, all signs point to Trump picking someone likely to drastically roll back much of the net neutrality progress made by the current administration including eliminating or seriously altering the Open Internet Order, the Obama-era FCC regulations roundly welcomed by net neutrality activists.
Knowing this, AT&T and Verizon could run out the clock on this issue, meaning: zero rating programs could end up a standard part of the wireless world.