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Any regulation of zero rating is unnecessary market interference

Members of the wireless industry got together yesterday in Washington, D.C. to debate what the Federal Communications Commission’s next move on zero rating ought not to be. Inside Sources reported that the wireless confab included T-Mobile, Verizon, Facebook, and other parties. Zero rating allows wireless services subscribers to access certain content providers without that access being charged against the consumer’s data plan. T-Mobile’s “Binge-On” service is a recently deployed example of this type of service.

Pro-net neutrality groups like Free Press, Public Knowledge, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation believe that zero rating violates the Commission’s open internet order by throttling data streams while favoring certain content providers over other providers.  For example, under 47 CFR 8.7, a person engaged in the provision of broadband internet access service shall not impair or degrade lawful internet traffic on the basis of internet content, application or service, or use of a non-harmful device, subject to reasonable network management.

One issue will be whether a service like “Binge-On” actually throttles traffic pursuant to this rule. The Commission so far has opted to a light touch approach to zero rating-type services, which wireless carriers have likened to 800-number services where the 800-number customer or its telephone service provider ate the cost of a long distance call from a customer. The Commission should find that there is no throttling because treatment of data traffic will be the same for all content providers, whether access to their content is done via “Binge-On” or not. The Commission’s political constraints go beyond the letter of their rules.

The Commission has been fervent about its clear and fair “rules of the road”; that all traffic be treated equally, that it may not want to rock the boat with the pro-net neutrality posse or their alleged four million post-card writing supporters. There is a chance that the Commission may opt for the safety of saying no to “Binge-On” with the claim that its best to err on the side of caution and avoid having its net neutrality rules go sliding down a slippery slope.

A call against “Binge-On” and other zero rating services is a strike against investor interests especially for investors in smaller carriers like T-Mobile. If T-Mobile is to acquire more market share it will do so with bolder offerings like “Binge-On.” The service appears to be an effective way for promoting the company’s other offerings, so much so that T-Mobile is finding that some customers, having had free access to participating websites are opting for additional and more expensive service. If there is an opportunity for government to show how anti-investor some policies can be, treating zero rating as anti-net neutrality would be one of them.

Will the FCC be naughty or nice when it comes to sponsored data

The Federal Communications Commission wants to determine if broadband access providers such as T-Mobile, AT&T, and Comcast, are complying with the Commission’s net neutrality rules. A report in Reuters stated the following:

“As you may be aware, concerns have been expressed about these programs, for example, some have argued that sponsored data unfairly advantages incumbent content providers,” the letter to AT&T said. “We want to ensure that we have all the facts to understand how these services relate to the commission’s goal of maintaining a free and open Internet while incentivizing innovation and investment from all sources.”

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler hasn’t posted any official statements on the Commission’s request for a January 15, 2016 meeting with AT&T, Comcast, or T-Mobile. Nor are there any docketed items addressing the matter of sponsored programs or other initiatives that allow consumers to use streaming or other data services while avoiding the application of this usage toward their data plans.

The Commission’s net neutrality rules do not speak specifically to a “1-800-number” approach to providing broadband access. The section of the rule that comes closest to addressing the concerns that sponsored data unfairly advantages incumbent broadband access providers is section 47 CFR 8.11.  This section reads:

“Any person engaged in the provision of broadband Internet access service, insofar as such person is so engaged, shall not unreasonably interfere with or unreasonably disadvantage end users’ ability to select, access, and use broadband Internet access service or the lawful Internet content, applications, services, or devices of their choice, or edge providers’ ability to make lawful content, applications, services, or devices available to end users. Reasonable network management shall not be considered a violation of this rule.”

A broadband access provider interfering with an end-user’s ability to select or access a competitor’s broadband access service or lawful content is not at issue here. Edge providers are arguing that they won’t be able to get their content in front of consumer eyeballs if larger content providers can leverage their content by offering it at a discount when they decide not to apply the data used against a data plan cap.

We can’t say whether there is a definitive political risk to the telecommunications sector since the Commission has yet to take any formal action. The “sit down” with broadband access providers is not for another three weeks and speculation at this point would be built on shaky ground.