The Federal Communications Commission was expected to become a different animal under President Trump. Under the previous chairman, Tom Wheeler, the FCC opened investigations into “zero-rating” data to favor certain streaming services over others, a move that would be against the core principles of net neutrality.
But today, the FCC sent letters to the targets of those four investigations, announcing that they’re dropping the inquiries.
The programs in question were T-Mobile’s popular Binge On, AT&T’s Sponsored Data, Comcast’s Stream TV and Verizon’s FreeBee Data 360. All of those services allow users to stream certain TV or movie services without it counting against a data cap, something that net neutrality advocates say harm’s the internet’s status as an open and equitable service.
The idea of net neutrality is that every byte of data should be treated the same: practically speaking, Comcast can’t prefer a stream from Comcast TV over Netflix. If internet service providers can discriminate between different types of content, it opens the door to a nightmarish scenario where Comcast will charge you extra to watch Netflix, or browse Amazon over Walmart for that matter.
Sponsored data programs operate right on the margins of net neutrality. In every case, the ISPs aren’t charging customers extra to access a particular service; rather, they’re making one streaming service more attractive than the other by making it not count against your data cap. The cases are a little different — AT&T, for example, is zero-rating data for its own DirecTV streaming service, which makes it a more attractive proposition than watching something on Hulu. T-Mobile’s Binge On, on the other hand, zero-rates data from any streaming service that signs up with T-Mobile, for no extra money.
But for the new-look FCC and its new-look Chairman, Ajit Pai, they’re all the same. “Today, the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau is closing its investigation into wireless carriers’ free-data offerings,” he said in a statement. “These free-data plans have proven to be popular among consumers, particularly low-income Americans, and have enhanced competition in the wireless marketplace. Going forward, the Federal Communications Commission will not focus on denying Americans free data. Instead, we will concentrate on expanding broadband deployment and encouraging innovative service offerings.”