Verizon and AT&T have responded to letters from the Federal Communications Commission that argued the companies’ sponsored data plans are harming consumers and the open internet.
The companies defended the programs, which allow select data sources to not count toward customers’ data plans through a process known as zero-rating. Although it did not explicitly ban them in new net neutrality rules laid out last year, the FCC has been critical of such programs, arguing that they can be used to hurt competition by unfairly favoring some data, creating an uneven playing field for businesses.
In a noticeably pointed response, AT&T takes a similar line to the position it’s held all along: programs like Data Free TV, which allows customers to use data from AT&T-owned DirecTV without it counting toward a plan, are not anticompetitive, but are simply a perk consumers enjoy.
“Although the [FCC Wireless Bureau] implicitly concedes that Data Free TV offers substantial consumer value, the Bureau ignores the many ways in which consumers would be substantially worse off if DIRECTV were forced to discontinue this program,” the company said in the letter.
Verizon, in its response, makes similar arguments defending its FreeBee data program, which allows data from Verizon-owned Go90 to not count toward a data plan. “FreeBee data provides tangible benefits to consumers by increasing the amount of what they can do and watch online, at no cost to them,” the company’s response says.
The FCC has generally rejected these sorts of claims in the past, arguing that the programs are often anticompetitive and a threat to net neutrality. But perhaps the most notable part of the responses come from the end of AT&T’s letter.
The company points out that, with an incoming Trump administration, the regulatory landscape is about to drastically change. Chairman Tom Wheeler announced plans yesterday to step down after Trump’s inauguration on January 20th. Soon after, appointments from the new president will swing the agency back into conservative hands, perhaps rendering the entire discussion moot.
As AT&T writes, the two current Republican commissioners serving on the agency have already voiced dissent on the regulation proposals. “Those Commissioners also observed that whatever judgment the Bureau purports to pass on this program before January 20 will very likely be reversed shortly thereafter,” the company writes. Those voices will soon be in control.