AT&T’s plan to start showering customers with potentially net neutrality-violating perks is just getting started. CEO Randall Stephenson remarked today on an earnings call that his company’s streaming benefits may expand beyond DirecTV Now, according to a report from The Wrap. As it stands now, AT&T exempts data from its $35 a month streaming TV service — which launched back in November — from counting toward AT&T mobile customers’ data caps. This process, known as zero rating, is a gray area under net neutrality rules established by the Federal Communications Commission.
However, with former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler out and Trump pick and noted net neutrality opponent Ajit Pai in place, it appears telecoms have been emboldened to start expanding controversial policies. “We actually were quite confident that zero rating as we were implementing was fine under a Pai chairmanship,” Stephenson said. “You should expect us to continue that, and continue to push aggressively on this.” The chief executive also added that AT&T has been “going hard” with its efforts to exempt certain data on its network and offer it up as a consumer benefit.
Stephenson’s distinction between a Wheeler chairmanship and a Pai chairmanship is important. Before he left his post earlier this month, Wheeler issued a new report assembled by the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau that effectively said AT&T was violating net neutrality by favoring its own service over competing ones. The report’s findings boiled down to the fact that zero rating a service you own, while not extending the opportunity to other services, creates an unfair playing field. T-Mobile, on the other hand, lets any third-party service opt in to its Binge On initiative, leading the FCC to declare it within the bounds of net neutrality. (Verizon, which zero rates data for its Go90 streaming mobile app, is off the hook as well, because it operates in a “less developed segment of the marketplace.”)
Still, it’s unlikely Wheeler’s final move will sway Pai and have any direct influence on how the FCC enforces the Open Internet Order that established modern net neutrality principles. “I am confident that this latest regulatory spasm will not have any impact on the Commission’s policymaking or enforcement activities following next week’s inauguration,” Pai said in a statement following the publication of Wheeler’s report.