FCC: DirecTV Now Plan Appears to Violate Net Neutrality Order

A new report out of the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau advises that AT&T's DirecTV Now sponsored data plan appears to violate the Open Internet order per its general conduct standard. But a new, Republican-led FCC is unlikely to second that opinion.

The Tom Wheeler FCC concluded its long-standing review of zero rating business plans Wednesday expressing "no concern with zero-rating per se" but plenty of concerns with AT&T's sponsored data plan and Verizon's FreeBee Data 360.

The bureau report concluded that: "The limited information we have obtained to date...tends to support a conclusion opposite from AT&T’s contentions – namely, that AT&T offers Sponsored Data to third party content providers at terms and conditions that are effectively less favorable than those it offers to its affiliate" and said that "the structure of Verizon Wireless’s FreeBee Data 360 sponsored data program offering may pose concerns for the same reasons as AT&T’s Sponsored Data program."

"In light of the rates at which DIRECTV is offering its DIRECTV Now service to end users, the information we have indicates that AT&T (including both the network operator and edge provider affiliates) does not consider zero-rating to be a real cost of business," the report said. "Instead, AT&T appears to view the network cost of Sponsored Data for DIRECTV Now as effectively de minimis. Unlike T-Mobile, however, which charges all edge providers the same zero rate for participating in Binge On, AT&T imposes hefty per-gigabyte charges on unaffiliated third parties for use of Sponsored Data. All indications are that AT&T’s charges far exceed the costs AT&T incurs in providing the sponsored data service. Thus, it would appear that AT&T’s practices inflict significant unreasonable disadvantages on edge providers and unreasonably interfere with their ability to compete against AT&T’s affiliate, in violation of the General Conduct Rule."

It said that Verizon's go90 competes in a less competitive segment but said there is the same potential for discriminatory conduct.

“It remains unclear why the Wireless Bureau continues to question the value of giving consumers the ability to watch video without incurring any data charges," said AT&T senior VP Joan Marsh. "This practice, which has been embraced by AT&T and other broadband providers, has enabled millions of consumers to enjoy the latest popular content and services – for free. We hope the government continues to support a competitive marketplace that lowers costs and increases choice for consumers.”

“The staff’s positions are duly noted," said Verizon senior VP Will Johnson. "We don’t agree with their view on free data and we don’t think our customers do either.  Hopefully the next FCC will take into account the views of our customers who greatly benefit from watching professional football, soccer, basketball and other great content on go90 free of data charges.”

Also duly noting it was Republican commissioner Ajit Pai, who is likely going to be the interim chairman of the FCC come Jan. 20 and will be in the majority in any event.

"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," he said in a statement.

"This time the midnight regulations come in the form of a Bureau-level report casting doubt on the legality of free data offerings—offerings that are popular among consumers precisely because they allow more access to online music, videos, and other content free of charge.

"This report, which I only saw after the FCC released the document, does not reflect the views of the majority of Commissioners. 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. It was my hope—as I have consistently expressed to my colleagues—that we could spend the remaining days of this Administration working together with bipartisan comity to ensure a smooth transition. It is sad that the outgoing leadership of the agency has chosen a different path."

(Photo via Tariqmudallal. Image taken on May 12, 2014 and used per Creative Commons 3.0 license. The photo was cropped to fit 9x16 aspect ratio.)

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.