FCC Probes Zero-Rating Wireless Services

by Matt Klassen on December 21, 2015

20151209-pay-phone-toll-free-telephoneThere has been a new movement afoot within the wireless industry, one that some may think runs afoul of the Federal Communications Commission’s controversial Net Neutrality legislation, that of “zero-rating” certain wireless traffic, ostensibly offering “toll-free” data and other wireless services.

The strange thing now, however, is that after giving this new industry promotional push its blessing, the FCC is taking a step backwards, now asking for information from companies employing this tactic in a fact-finding mission to determine whether or not such practices are legal…by its own standards.

To that end, letters were sent to the heads of AT&T, Comcast and T-Mobile in an exploratory effort, asking for details about each one’s respective offers that allow users to stream video and music without impacting their monthly data caps. The problem now, of course, is that the FCC has clearly demonstrated what we’ve all feared for some time, that it has absolutely no idea what it’s doing, with little or no understanding of its own regulations, how they’re to be interpreted, and how they’re going to be enforced. In fact, I might say that the greatest detriment to establishing a free and open Internet may be the FCC itself…no surprise there I guess.

It should be noted that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler may it abundantly clear that this request for information was not part of any formal investigation, and there is no implication of wrong doing, only that the Commission needs more information about the detailed workings of these companies’ respective practices towards zero-rating these wireless services.

“Let me be real clear,” Wheeler said. “These were ‘let’s get informed letters.'”

Unfortunately that does not help my confidence level in the FCC. Now granted there is nothing wrong with fact-finding missions, as these are private businesses that operate in a free market society, without direct governmental interference. So for the FCC to not know exactly what this company or that company is doing is not a surprise; what is a surprise, however, is that the FCC has already commented on this so-called “toll-free” approach to sponsored data, and has ostensibly given the act, by T-Mobile specifically, its stamp of approval.

Now last week AT&T went public with its own confusion surrounding Net Neutrality standards, arguing that there simply isn’t enough clarity to know if zero-rating streaming video or music violates the terms of the new regulations. While at first the FCC seemed to say ‘no,’ it seems like now it’s not so sure whether or not zero-rating is legal, else why would it be doing its fact-finding now?

I suppose one could say that all the FCC is guilty of is putting the cart before the horse; the Commission was keen on letting the industry continue to be competitive, zero-rating certain streaming services seemed harmless enough, so it allowed it to continue. Of course what it should have done first with explore the details behind such promotions, withholding any opinion, or blessing, or anything until it actually knew whether or not sponsored data and zero-rating were warranted.

I fear, however, that because of the fact that the FCC has not taken a strong stand on zero-rating data, again the practice of not having certain streaming services and other such data count against data usage caps, and choosing instead to praise the innovation before investigating it, that it has done more to undercut the legal authority of its Net Neutrality regulations than any lawsuit or complaint ever could.
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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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