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FCC ready to intervene over AT&T's Sponsored Data program if necessary

FCC ready to intervene over AT&T's Sponsored Data program if necessary

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AT&T (stock)
AT&T (stock)

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler used his talk at CES today to put AT&T's controversial new "Sponsored Data" program on notice. "My attitude is: let's take a look at what this is, let's take a look at how it operates," Wheeler said. "And be sure, that if it interferes with the operation of the internet; that if it develops into an anticompetitive practice; that if it does have some kind of preferential treatment given somewhere, then that is cause for us to intervene."

"let's take a look at what this is..."

AT&T announced the service just two days ago, so the FCC hasn't had time to examine how it would work in detail. But as The Verge's own Nilay Patel pointed out, the plan as presented – which allows companies to cover the costs of data used by AT&T mobile customers for specific apps and services – could easily morph into a kind of anticompetitive practice. Specifically, it could help the apps and services of those companies wealthy enough to pay for their customers' data, while stifling those startups that can't afford to pick up the tab.

Wheeler's talk covered far more than AT&T's Sponsored Data program, though. The new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, who took over the job in November last year, also talked about net neutrality more broadly, saying "we are strong supporters of the open internet." He outlined what wireless and broadband service companies should do to stay out of the FCC's crosshairs: "you won't screw up operation of the internet, you won't act in anticompetitive or preferential ways." He added: "We'll use those kinds of tests to see what the appropriate response [from the FCC] will be, if any."

"We are pro innovation, we are pro competition, and we want to protect both."

Such comments were as carefully worded as they were direct coming from Wheeler, who previously served as the CEO of the nation's top telecom lobbying group, CTIA. But Wheeler tried to play to the crowd, many of whom included his former colleagues and partners in the telecom and wireless industries. "How do we allow for technology to be nimble, for the market to be nimble? It demands us be nimble as well," Wheeler said. He pointed to the fact that US remains dominant in LTE adoption as evidence of how the marketplace can work effectively when a light regulatory approach is taken. "I believe we need to be encouraging to innovation," Wheeler said, but added he wanted the FCC to keep a "watchful eye" on potential anticompetitive practices. "We are pro innovation, we are pro competition, and we wan't to protect both."

"Yes, it created a firestorm."

Over the course of his hour-long talk, Wheeler addressed the recent furor around the FCC's move to accept public comment on allowing cell phone calls on commercial airplane flights, which are currently prohibited. The FCC hasn't made any final decisions yet regarding the idea, but the backlash from other members of government was swift and fierce, with lawmakers voicing their firm opposition and the Department of Transportation considering a preemptive ban.

"Yes, it created a firestorm," Wheeler acknowledged. "But it also encouraged the appropriate federal agency, the Department of Transportation, to open a similar proceeding...the end result of this, as you go through the pieces, is that you don't have to listen to the person next to you yapping at 30,000 feet, but you can text, you can send email and you can surf the internet." That is, at least if the plan to allow wireless service on flights goes through along with a ban on audio calls, which is what Wheeler would prefer.

The FCC Chairman also related how complex the upcoming three spectrum auctions are going to be, with the US government trying to great incentives for TV broadcasters to sell off the spectrum they currently use, so that it can in turn be auctioned off for more wireless internet and data coverage. But Wheeler expressed confidence in his agency's ability to get the job done, and praised one fellow commissioner in particular, Mignon Clyburn, for serving as a remarkably productive FCC Chair for the six months before he took over. "You think with an interim chairman its going to be a sleepy pace, but I was wrong, it was like getting on a treadmill," Wheeler said. Given his comments today, Wheeler doesn't seem to want to slow things down.