The FCC ( Federal Communications Commission ) has asked AT&T, Comcast and T-Mobile carriers to answer questions about their implementations of zero-rating practice, according to which, end customers are not charged for data used by specific applications or internet services through their network, in limited or metered data plans.
All three companies received letters by FCC officials yesterday, asking them to make “relevant technical and business personnel” available for discussions with FCC staff by January 15.
More specifically the letters read:
“We want to ensure that we have all the facts to understand how this service relates to the Commission’s goal of maintaining a free and open Internet while incentivizing innovation and investment from all sources.”
But as alarming as it may sound, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler assured reporters that “this is not an investigation. This is not any enforcement. This is to help us stay informed as to what the practices are, as we said we would do in the Open Internet Order.”
Open Internet & zero-rated content
To better understand the zero rating practice and its impact on the open internet, we first need to see all possible aspects of the said practice.
Matthew Shears from the Centre for Democracy and Technology says:
“One of the main arguments in favor of zero-rating is that it brings down the cost of access to information in less developed countries – eg Wikipedia Zero. […]But zero-rating can also be viewed as requiring discrimination among online content and service providers and may create skewed incentives for subscribers to access the “free” services of identified partners instead of competing services.
Furthermore, Digital Fuel Monitor, the monitoring service of mobile connectivity competitiveness has released a document of its own making titled “The real threat to the open Internet is zero-rated content”.
Yet, the Open Internet Order has not specifically banned data caps or zero-rating. But it includes a general conduct standard in which the FCC judges on a case-by-case basis, whether a practice “unreasonably interferes” with the ability of consumers to reach content, or the ability of content providers to reach consumers.
All three companies that are now called to answer on their data cap exemptions have followed different practices.
AT&T runs the Sponsored Data program which charges third parties – such as advertisers – for the right to deliver data without counting against consumers’ mobile data caps.
T-Mobile, on the other hand, keeps a variety of music and video services from its high-speed data limits, without charging for any exemptions.
Comcast, relieves its own “Stream TV” (in-home streaming service) from the cap.