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Wheeler: Still Eyeing Zero Rating Plans

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler says the FCC is continuing to vet information about zero rating plans to decide how they square with the general internet conduct standard that allows the commission to identify practices that impede an open internet.

That update, in a press conference following the FCC's monthly meeting Friday, came as net neutrality groups pressed the FCC to take action on the strength of over 100,000 complaints, while the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC) launched its own online petition to preserve the plans as pro-consumer and diversity.

Zero rating plans exclude some video or other broadband services from usage-based pricing.

The idea of the general conduct standard is to take a case-by-case approach to potential problematic conduct. For example, finding zero rating plans out of bounds if they are found to have anticompetitive effects but not if they don't.

Asked following the FCC's monthly public meeting whether the FCC would take action on the plans following a federal appeals court's ruling upholding its ability to impose that standard, Wheeler said the reason the FCC did not have specific language on zero rating plans in the Open Internet Order is because it is a broad issue, not a "one-size-fits-all situation."

He said the FCC continued to collect information, as it has been for months, and remained in ongoing discovery mode.

He also said he appreciated the input he had gotten on the issue, which included an event staged in advance of the meeting.

Network neutrality advocates including Free Press, Fight for the Future, and the Center for Media Justice, delivered over 100,000 complaints to FCC headquarters backing a regulatory review of such plans, pitching it in advance as a photo op and following through with a giant letter placed in a grassy area adjacent to the FCC's headquarters.

On the other side of the issue, MMTC launched a campaign in support of zero rating plans tied to the advantage of lowering the price for broadband.

"Zero rating and free data practices from wireless operators are helping families manage their data use, and in some instances, confront the realities of expensive mobile phone bills that keep them offline. Millions of Americans, especially more vulnerable and younger populations, cannot get online – simply because they cannot afford it," MMTC said.

MMTC said it supported the application of the general conduct standard as a fair framework of evaluating the practice, but wanted to make sure the FCC was taking into account that "the consumers who are benefitting from free data are the ones who are in a daily struggle to keep their mobile services activated. They deserve to have their voices heard,” it said.

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.