AT&T, Comcast and T-Mobile Face FCC Questions on Free Data

  • Discussion aimed at clarifying Internet rules on neutrality
  • FCC's Wheeler says he wants a look at `innovative things'

AT&T Inc., Comcast Corp. and T-Mobile US Inc. are facing questions from U.S. regulators about offering customers free data for viewing Web videos, a feature that raises concerns about equal treatment of Internet content.

The Federal Communications Commission sent letters to the three carriers “asking them to come in and have a discussion with us about some of the innovative things they are doing,” Chairman Tom Wheeler said Thursday speaking at a Washington news conference.

“This is not an investigation,” Wheeler said. “This is, ‘Help us stay informed as to what the practices are.’ ”

The discussions come amid concerns that carriers are treating some data traffic differently, which may conflict with the fairness policies central to net neutrality rules. Wheeler last month said the agency would be “keeping an eye on” T-Mobile’s Binge On offer of free data for some online video that doesn’t count against a customer’s limited-data plan. The feature -- an example of what is sometimes called zero-rated -- was announced by the wireless carrier on Nov. 10.

“We look forward to talking with the FCC and sharing more details about Binge On,” Tim O’Regan, a T-Mobile spokesman said in an e-mail. “This program provides both great customer choice and industry innovation that encourages competition and we believe it is absolutely in line with net-neutrality rules.”

Comcast’s Stream

Wheeler mentioned Comcast’s Stream, a $15 a month online TV service it is testing with its Xfinity subscribers.

"We look forward to participating in the FCC’s fact-gathering process relating to industry practices,” said Sena Fitzmaurice, Washington-based Comcast spokeswoman. Stream TV works on Comcast’s network and not over the public Internet, Fitzmaurice said. “It is not a so-called ‘zero-rated’ service. We are happy to cooperate with this request.”

In several markets, Comcast is also testing what it calls usage-based pricing, or charging higher broadband prices to customers who go over a set monthly usage limit. The trials give customers a limit of 300 gigabits per month, then offer increments of 50 gigabits more for $10 each. The company says the approach, which is similar to what is used by wireless companies, is aimed at a small percentage of its heaviest Internet users whose streaming videos and other Web activity take up a large amount of its broadband network.

Net Neutrality

AT&T offers a sponsored data option allowing companies to pay customers’ wireless data charges while watching videos or viewing content on their phones and tablets. AT&T has signed on at least six partners to the service.

“We are reviewing the letter and will respond as appropriate. We remain committed to innovation without permission and hope the FCC is too,” Michael Balmoris, an AT&T spokesman said in an e-mail.

Some net neutrality supporters have said the FCC should probe whether the offering would violate the agency’s open-Internet rule by unfairly favoring some video providers’ offerings. Last year, Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, raised concerns that Internet service providers could create fast lanes for deep-pocketed companies.

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