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Net neutrality refuses to defuse - it’s back as ‘zero rating’


via Flickr © mikecogh (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • Zero rating emerges as new net neutrality issue
  • FCC 'looking into' it
  • Telcos grow in confidence as politics closes in on the FCC

In the US the net neutrality issue festers on with an intensifying controversy over bandwidth caps and zero rating. Having made its Open Internet Order the FCC, political capital now used up, has decided to watch and wait before pronouncing on zero rating, presumably not wanting to push its luck just before presidential elections which may return a ‘neutrality-hostile’ administration.

The issue concerns the fairly obvious telco manoeuvre of setting a cap on the amount of data a user may download in a month, while simultaneously creating exemptions which may (or may not - there lies the controversy) be applied in a discriminatory fashion. Once the user uses up a carefully calibrated monthly allowance on half a movie, watching more means finding a provider prepared to ‘sponsor’ it by paying for the privilege, or (just as telco friendly) using the telco’s own video service. Either option in a capped environment looks to many like blatant commercial discrimination.

As things stand, FCC Chairman Wheeler says he is content to examine the various zero rating or data cap exemption arrangements, currently being pushed forward  by the likes of  AT&T, Comcast, T-Mobile and now Verizon, to see if any of them (they all vary) contravene the commission’s “general conduct standard”.

Sensing the FCC’s current strategic weakness, US telcos are pushing to see what they can get away with. First came the self-styled rebel, T-Mobile, which caused a lot of head-scratching with its Binge On offer, a zero rating plan so cunning nobody could work out what it meant and who was benefitting.  Binge On is high on discrimination (all video traffic in the scheme is granted zero rating, the catch is that T-Mobile compresses them before delivery) but low on monetisation (any video-providing company can join for free, no money changes hands, claims T-Mobile). Perhaps T-Mobile is setting the scene for when it determines that net neutrality will be overturned. It will then be possible to turn the screw on the video providers, just as they and their customers have become used to their ‘free ride’.

Now Verizon, emboldened perhaps by T-Mobile’s free pass, first announced its ‘FreeBee Data 360’ programme under which content providers pay to send zero-rated data to its customers. Then Verizon added the zero rating dispensation to its own mobile Go90 streaming video service. Essentially Verizon customers get free LTE-delivered video from Verizon itself. The telco is buying its own sponsored data service. It argues that this isn’t discriminatory since any video deliverer could do the same. Many others seek to differ. The FCC is examining.

Meanwhile in Europe there’s a similar regulatory breathing space in the wake of the European Parliament’s decision to ‘pass down’ the zero rating issue to member states when it passed its net neutrality legislation last year. For whatever reason European users and telco rivals are less energised about zero rating - partly (one can guess) through general ‘neutrality debate exhaustion’, partly because of reliance on WiFi and the availability of uncapped services; not to mention the fact that several million refugees are knocking and asking to come in. The ‘zero rating thing’ just seems less urgent.

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