AT&T, Comcast And T-Mobile Facing FCC Free Data Questioning

U.S. provider giants AT&T Inc., T-Mobile US Inc., and Comcast Corp are under fire from regulators over dangling free data for viewing Web videos carrots in front of customers.

The regulators say the offers raise concerns about equal treatment of Internet content.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler says he is sending letters to the three carriers “asking them to come in and have a discussion with us about some of the innovative things they are doing.” He adds “This is not an investigation. This is, ‘Help us stay informed as to what the practices are.’”

The invites comes on the heels of concerns that the carriers are treating some data traffic differently, which may be in conflict with the fairness policies vital to net neutrality rules. Wheeler says the FCC is “keeping an eye on” T-Mobile’s latest ‘Binge On’ offer of free data for some online video which won’t count against a customer’s limited-data plan.

Tim O’Regan, a T-Mobile spokesperson says the company feels all its offers are in line with net-neutrality rules.

“We look forward to talking with the FCC and sharing more details about Binge On. This program provides both great customer choice and industry innovation that encourages competition and we believe it is absolutely in line with net-neutrality rules.”

The FCC is also interested in Comcast’s Stream offer, a $15 a month online TV service it is currently testing with its Xfinity subscribers.

Sena Fitzmaurice, Comcast’s spokesperson says, “We look forward to participating in the FCC’s fact-gathering process relating to industry practices.” She adds as Stream TV works on Comcast’s network and not over the public Internet, “It is not a so-called ‘zero-rated’ service.

Comcast is also trialing a user-based pricing strategy, where it charges higher broadband prices to customers who use a lot of data. The trial gives users a limit of 300 gigabits per month, then charges in increments of 50 gigabits extra for $10 each.  

Fitzmaurice says this is similar to what is used by wireless companies, and is targeted “at a small percentage” of its heaviest Internet users in terms of data used.

AT&T is offering a sponsored data option allowing companies to sponsor customers’ wireless data charges while viewing videos or on tablets and phones. The company has signed six sponsoring partners for this service.

AT&T spokesperson Michael Balmoris, says, “We are reviewing the letter and will respond as appropriate. We remain committed to innovation without permission and hope the FCC is too.”

Some net neutrality activists say the FCC should investigate all offerings which even appear to violate its open-Internet rules.
Last year Senator Al Franken raised questions about Internet service providers creating “fast lanes for deep-pocketed companies”.

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