This week, the FCC finally completed its investigation of so-called “zero-rating” schemes, finding that AT&T is likely violating net neutrality rules by charging outside video providers more for free streaming. Nevertheless, the carrier is unlikely to face punitive action—the man poised to become the new FCC chair under President Trump has promised it won’t.
According to the FCC report released Wednesday, offering “zero-rated” content (that is, content which doesn’t count against customers’ data caps) is not, in itself, a violation. However, by charging outside video services substantially above cost for that privilege while giving it to their own subsidiary, DirectTV, for free, AT&T may be “unreasonably discriminating” in violation of FCC rules.
That might not sound like a very big deal, but it means the program is ultimately a way for AT&T to use its role as an internet provider to make access to content it wants you to see cheaper—and, by extension, access to other content more expensive.
“[W]e have serious concerns that AT&T Mobility’s Sponsored Data program presents competitive problems and, to date, nothing in AT&T responses to the Bureau’s requests for information has addressed our concerns,” reads the report by staffers of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau. “Based on the information gathered to date, we believe there is a substantial possibility that some of AT&T’s practices may violate the General Conduct Rule.”
Together with Verizon (which operates a far smaller service raising similar issues), the carriers “present significant risks to consumers and competition,” the reports concludes.
In a few short days, however, those “significant risks” are all but certain to be forgotten. When President Trump takes office on January 20, current FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who opened the investigation, will step down and one of the two remaining Republican commissioners will likely take his place. On Wednesday, the commission’s senior Republican, Ajit Pai, dismissed both the investigation and its findings.
“It is disappointing that the FCC’s current leadership has yet again chosen to spend its last days in office the same way it spent the last few years—cutting corners on process, keeping fellow Commissioners in the dark, and pursuing partisan, political agendas that only harm investment and innovation,” said Pai in a statement. “Fortunately, I am confident that this latest regulatory spasm will not have any impact on the Commission’s policymaking or enforcement activities following next week’s inauguration.”
As disconcerting as Pai’s statement may be, the idea of a free and open internet will soon face even graver challenges. In a letter to telecom lobbyists last month, the two Republican FCC commissioners promised to roll back net neutrality rules “as soon as possible.”