Pro-Zero Rating Comments Flood FCC

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission is getting flooded with comments asking it to “please protect our free data.”

The FCC is currently investigating zero-rating plans — in which some video content does not count against broadband-usage caps — from a handful of top ISPs as part of its general- conduct standard of review for business practices that could impede a free and open Internet. The review was also prompted by a complaint fi led against Comcast’s Stream TV.

A check of the FCC docket on open Internet issues finds a flurry of form letters — the majority of the several thousand comments filed over the past couple of weeks — in two different variations, but making the same point. Many appear to have been generated from an online form set up by Phone2Action, a boutique firm providing grassroots online activism tools for clients and headed by, among others, former Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty.

“Free data plans are new and innovative services that give you ‘free’ content as part of your existing wireless data plan,” reads one of the letters, which then details their many upsides.

The dark cloud on that sunny horizon, the commenters suggest, is Washington, D.C. “We must act now to protect these free data plans from regulators and policymakers,” the letter reads, adding that companies should be encouraged to find more ways for users to feed their growing mobile appetites, not less, and for Washington to allow the Internet “we all love and rely upon” to “grow and evolve.”

Broadband providers argue that zero-rating plans are a user-friendly way to differentiate service — for example, T-Mobile zero-rated Pokémon Go as a way to differentiate its service as the wildly popular VR game swept the nation. On the other side, opponents argue zero rating is a pay-to-play way for some services to get an unfair advantage and divide the net into haves and have nots.

It might not be an either-or proposition. The FCC could decide that the plans are OK in some circumstances, but anticompetitive in others.

Former Democratic FCC chairman Reed Hundt has said he thought the FCC would have to allow for some form of zero-rating plans. Asked at the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council’s 14th annual Access to Capital and Telecom Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., about the FCC’s current investigation into zero-rating plans, Hundt said he thought the agency was going to have to decide that people — in this case, broadband providers that carve specific services out from usage-based pricing plans — are going to have to be allowed to give things away for free.

“Being against free is not very popular,” Hundt added — except with such groups as, Color-Of- Change, Center for Media Justice, Fight for the Future, Demand Progress, Free Press and Open Technology Institute. They told the FCC that zero-rating plans could “break the net,” urging action be taken on the strength of more than 100,000 comments critical of the practice.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler in June said the FCC continues to investigate the rating plans, but did not signal any imminent decision on them.

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.