Zero-Rating Plans Don't Rate With Net-Neutrality Groups

Zero-rating plan foes got together over the weekend to collect signatures on a letter they plan to send today (March 28) to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler urging him to crack down on zero-rating plans before they "break the Net."

The FCC is currently investigating zero-rating plans -- in which some video content does not count against usage caps -- from a handful of top ISPs as part of its Open Internet general conduct standard of review for business practices that could impede a free and open Internet, including Comcast's Stream TV, which has a complaint filed against it.

The groups appear to have no doubt the practice violates both the spirit and the letter of the new FCC Open Internet rules.

"As currently offered, these plans enable ISPs to pick winners and losers online or create new tolls for websites and applications," they wrote.

Referring to the Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile plans being vetted by the FCC, the groups say the services "distort competition, thwart innovation, threaten free speech and restrict consumer choice." Those are all harms the FCC's Open Internet rules were meant to prevent, they argue, and allowing them would be "a serious threat to the Open Internet."

The groups also made a point of saying the FCC's Open Internet order "ensures that Internet users control the content they access, not their ISPs."

"The Open Internet rules say that ISPs cannot pick winners and losers online by slowing down some applications and services while speeding up others," they added.

The net-neutrality rules do not hold edge providers to the same standard, however, since, as Wheeler has pointed out pointedly, the rules to not apply to them.

That disparity hit the fan last week when Netflix conceded its users did not have control over the Netflix content they accessed over AT&T and Verizon broadband service -- Netflix said it was limiting the quality to keep users under bandwidth caps, though the company added it was working on a technology to give users control over bit rates vis-a-vis bandwidth caps.

A spokesperson for those groups calling for no zero-rating plans was checking at press time whether they were also concerned about Netflix throttling online video without telling customers or the companies.

Among the groups signing on to the letter were, ColorOfChange, Center for Media Justice, Fight for the Future, Demand Progress, Free Press and Open Technology Institute.

Free Press policy director Matt Wood said he sees a clear difference between ISPs as carriers subject to neutrality rules, and Netflix, which is not.

"The bottom line for me is that net neutrality prevents carriers from dictating what we say to each other,” he told Multichannel News. “It doesn't dictate what we say to each other ["we" including Netflix as a speaker]. Netflix is free to transmit its content however it wants. If users want to leave that behind because they don't like that, that's fine. I'm not here to defend anything Netflix is doing, but you can't shoehorn this into net neutrality because it is not about the carrier in the middle interfering with content."

"Free data services are pro-consumer, innovative offerings that we should all embrace," said Brad Gillen, EVP at CTIA, which represents wireless ISPs. "It should also come as no surprise that mobile consumers love free data so they can watch videos, listen to music or use the Internet without charges to their monthly data allowance. The FCC should reject efforts to take away from consumers these free data services and options."

“To claim that zero rating is anything other than good for consumers makes zero sense," says Mobile Future board chair Jonathan Spalter. "It is almost as ridiculous as defending Netflix on Friday (March 25) for secretly throttling video to millions of unsuspecting customers and turning around on Monday to attack consumer-friendly free data offerings. "New service options that make it easier for consumers to afford access to more content is a good thing. Free mobile data offerings give consumers more than they pay for, which is particularly important for price-sensitive consumers. If the FCC is trying to encourage competition and consumer choice, it will reject efforts to thwart carriers from vying for customers with differentiated new service offerings. Doing anything less will make America’s wireless consumers the ultimate losers.”

Mobile Future members include Samsung, Verizon, and Qualcomm.

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.