MetroPCS Blocks Online Content: Net Neutrality Faces Stiff Test

by Matt Klassen on January 14, 2011

It’s a rare day when an American mobile service provider outside of the “Big 4” makes waves in the blogosphere, but MetroPCS, the country’s fifth largest mobile telecommunications network, finds itself in the headlines this week, and for all the wrong reasons.

In a letter sent earlier this week to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), MetroPCS has been accused of unlawfully blocking certain online content for some of its tiered, or “light,” Internet plans, a move that open Internet interest groups are claiming contravenes the recent Net Neutrality standards put forth by the FCC.

While such stories happen more than is often reported, this one is unique, as this may be the first time we see the fledgling Net Neutrality legislation put to the test; a test that could determine whether or not the FCC has any legal authority to govern how Internet providers run their businesses; a test that could sink Net Neutrality before it even leaves dry-dock.

In the letter (PDF)sent Monday to the FCC from a consortium of free speech and media watchdogs, including Free Press, the Center for Media Justice, Media Access Project, New America Foundation Open Technology Institute, and, accusations were levelled against MetroPCS that the wireless provider is unlawfully blocking services such as Skype and Netflix under its various low-cost data plans.

The issue breaks down like this: MetroPCS currently offers several tiered data plans at particular price points, meaning that they offer budget options with limited data caps and more expensive unlimited data plans, allowing customers to choose the data/price plan that best meets their needs.

There is a notable difference, however, between MetroPCS’s $40 unlimited talk, text, web browsing and YouTube access plan and the company’s unlimited plan, which is offered at $60. It seems that MetroPCS has added an additional category to its data plans called “Additional Data Access,” a feature that is not available on the $40 plan but is available on the $60 unlimited plan. So what does it all mean?

Although MetroPCS doesn’t ever spell out what is included in this new category, the Net Neutrality watchdog consortium is arguing that services such as Skype and Netflix fall under “Additional Data Access,” meaning that users of the lower-cost $40 plan would be blocked from accessing those services altogether.  

By restricting what services users of the budget data plan can access, MetroPCS is arbitrarily deciding which content is important, which content users should have access to, and which content users should be able to use their data allotment on; points that are all in direct contravention to the Net Neutrality standards.

So what can the FCC do about it? With the legal authority to challenge such practices aside for a moment, there is a great deal of discussion over whether or not MetroPCS is actually breaking Net Neutrality rules–which MetroPCS says, of course, it isn’t–as access to the sites in question is still available to customers, just at a higher price point, an issue that will surely need some clarification as Net Neutrality goes forward.

In my mind, until the FCC is sure that MetroPCS is doing something wrong I doubt it will do anything, for if it learned anything through its Comcast debacle last year, its be sure that the company in question is doing something illegal before you start—and lose—legal proceedings. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how the FCC handles this complaint, as it will surely set a precedent for how Net Neutrality is enforced in the future.

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