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FCC’s Wheeler Expounds on Proposed AT&T Fine

WASHINGTON – Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler drilled down into the proposed $100 million fine levied against AT&T for its Maximum Bit Rate plan, saying that the agency had still not come up with a final decision, which would come after the telco offered up its response to the proposal.

But Wheeler suggested the penalty could ultimately include consumer refunds as well as the proposed fine.

"Right now, our authority is to levy a fine," Wheeler said in a press conference Thursday (June 18) following the agency’s June public meeting. While he said it was premature to talk about whether refunds could result from any settlement that might result from the process, "it is not at this point in the NAL, but it is a possibility it could evolve."

Wheeler made clear that while AT&T would still be making its case, he thought the company had not been sufficiently transparent about its "unlimited" plan and the limits on speed it included in some cases.

At the press conference, Wheeler was asked about possible legislation out of the Senate Commerce Committee that would allow companies like AT&T to challenge such fines before they were proposed.

In a 3-2 party-line vote, the FCC this week voted to impose the Notice of Apparent Liability on the AT&T plan. AT&T had argued that its temporary slowing of speeds for its heaviest users is a network-management practice to ensure others’ service is not degraded.

Wheeler said that the 2010 Open Internet order transparency rules are explicit that there had to be "sufficient explanation" of carrier activities. He said in this instance, the term "unlimited" that AT&T used wasn't unlimited and the policy wasn't explained.

"They said that it [the policy] applies to the top 5% of data subscribers. How am I supposed to know I am in the top 5%?" he asked. "How is that a sufficient explanation?"

Wheeler also said there was no notice about extent of the service reduction. There was also no explanation of what the impact of the slowdown would be "on the way I used what I thought I had bought."

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.