How Popular Opinion will win the Zero-Rating Controversy

by Jeff Wiener on February 12, 2016

public-opinionIt wasn’t that long ago that most municipalities across North America were resisting the arrival of revolutionary ride-sharing service Uber, with many arguing that it violated public transportation laws, disrupted the taxi industry, and was generally unsafe (all of which I still believe are true). But despite the fact that Uber ran afoul of all current transportation legislation and regardless of the generally sound arguments opposed to putting public transportation in the hands of anyone with a car, Uber has thrived, almost exclusively thanks to public opinion. Simply put, people want Uber, all the rest is noise.

So enter the zero-rating controversy, the ongoing efforts of wireless carriers to provide certain video feeds at no data cost, and with full deference to the sound arguments put forth by researchers at Stanford, by analysts across the continent, and by the FCC’s own Net Neutrality standards, we may see the entire open Internet imitative toppled not by lawsuits or legislation, but by popular opinion.

The fact of the matter is that from everything I’ve seen, through the practice zero-rating certain video streams (ostensibly penalizing certain content providers) and “optimizing” such video traffic, carriers are clearly violating various aspects of the Net Neutrality regulations (a controversy currently being played out in India), but more to the point, it likely won’t matter given that people actually want what the carriers are offering.

It’s times like this that I think T-Mobile CEO John Legere, with all his bombastic showmanship and question-everything attitude, is an industry genius, as even when his company is under investigation for potential open Internet violations, Legere continues to advertise and defend his company’s Binge On service, and he does so because he knows he has the most powerful ally any industry could ever hope for: public opinion.

Consider that with Uber, a service was introduced into the established industry that clearly violated a host of long-established rules, yet despise the fact that ride-sharing was illegal according to the letter of the law, public opinion demanded the service remain, and subsequently the laws are now changing to accommodate this new disruptive force. So to, it seems, does Legere think that it’s just a matter of time before the FCC concedes the value of this service and amends the fledgling open Internet rules to accommodate it.

For you see, T-Mobile (and now AT&T and Verizon) has attempted to answer a real need in the mobile world—the fact that streaming video gobbles up data faster than Pac-Man eats dots (did I just date myself?). With its Binge On service T-Mobile has given people access to DVD-quality mobile streaming video without it counting against one’s monthly data allotment, meaning users can quite literally binge on video to their heart’s content.

It is for this reason that the FCC initially lauded T-Mobile’s efforts, as there is undeniably a strong consumer component to zero-rating such services. But of course since then we’ve been presented with a myriad of arguments as to why offering certain video streams at no data cost violates Net Neutrality standards, particularly when it’s done by carriers (as opposed to content providers).

So forget what I said about T-Mobile (the jury is still out on Verizon I would say) and zero-rating certain video streams, for despite the fact that it is clearly illegal according to the FCC’s own rules, it won’t be going anywhere for the simple fact that consumers want it.

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