AT&T Tells FCC That Giving Its Own Content An Unfair Market Advantage Is Good For Consumers

from the the-death-knell-of-net-neutrality dept

We've noted a few times that the whole net neutrality debate truly started back in 2005, when then AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre proudly proclaimed that he wasn't going to let Google "ride his pipes for free." While AT&T's rhetoric has mutated slightly over the years, its core objective has remained the same: use its monopoly over broadband to extract unnecessary "troll tolls" from competitors, giving its own services an unfair advantage. It's precisely this kind of behavior that triggered the creation of net neutrality rules in the first place; an effort that took more than a decade of fighting tooth and nail to come to fruition.

And yet here we are a decade later, with the entire concept of net neutrality in the United States about to implode in truly spectacular and depressing fashion (assuming you like markets that function properly).

We've been talking about how AT&T intends to exempt its upcoming "DirecTV Now" streaming service from the company's own, arbitrary usage caps -- while still penalizing competing services. In other words, if you use AT&T's TV service you won't run into caps, throttling, or surcharges. But use a competitor and you will be penalized, whether that's Netflix or instructional videos from a non-profit or educational institution. This is precisely why people urged the FCC to join countries like India, Japan, Norway and The Netherlands and ban zero rating entirely. The FCC didn't listen.

But last week the FCC appears to have woken briefly from its year-long slumber on the subject; long enough to pen a letter to AT&T informing them that the agency had finally realized that this sort of behavior was horrible for the streaming video market:
"In the letter to AT&T from the FCC's Jon Wilkins, the agency states that this behavior "may obstruct competition and harm consumers by constraining their ability to access existing and future mobile video services not affiliated with AT&T."

"It is not difficult to calculate usage scenarios in which an unaffiliated provider's Sponsored Data charges alone could render infeasible any third-party competitor's attempt to compete with the $35 per month retail price that AT&T has announced for DIRECTV Now," the letter said. "Unaffiliated video providers not purchasing Sponsored Data would likewise face a significant competitive disadvantage in trying to serve AT&T Mobility's customer base without zero-rating."
AT&T responded in a letter back to the FCC This week (pdf), claiming that giving its own content an unfair market advantage is going to be really wonderful for consumers:
"These initiatives are precisely the kind of pro-consumer challenges to cable that the Commission heralded in approving AT&T's acquisition of DIRECTV...DIRECTV’s sponsorship of that content through Data Free TV allows DIRECTV to better compete against the cable incumbents by ensuring that its subscribers receive the mobile video experience they increasingly demand in the most consumer-friendly manner possible.
Sure, unfairly distorting the market so your content and services get a leg up on competitors is great for AT&T, but it comes at the cost of dismantling the level streaming video playing field. Of course that has been AT&T's goal all along. All of the lawsuits, misleading rhetoric, and farmed studies have always been about one thing for AT&T: protecting its ability to abuse its stranglehold over the broadband last mile to unfair advantage. Calling this molestation of functional markets a consumer benefit only adds insult to obvious injury.

Amusingly, AT&T also tries to tell the FCC that it's not a big deal that it's giving its own content an unfair advantage, because other companies can get the same priority treatment -- if they're willing to pay AT&T for the privilege:
"The suggestion that Data Free TV creates “significant disadvantages” for online video distributors who wish to reach AT&T’s wireless subscribers is likewise off-base. Any unaffiliated content provider can participate in AT&T’s Sponsored Data program on the same terms and at the same rate as DIRECTV, and the sponsored data rate is as low as the market based rates AT&T currently offers even to wireless resellers who commit to significant purchase volumes."
That's AT&T intentionally pretending that it doesn't own DirecTV, if you're playing along at home. Sure, you can get the same exact deal as AT&T's own company gets, but you have to pay a premium to do so. But that again distorts the streaming video market, given that large companies are far more likely to be able to afford AT&T's troll toll than startups, non-profits, or other competitors. There's simply no planet where what AT&T's doing shouldn't be seen as anti-innovation and anti-competitive.

And while it's nice that the FCC at least woke up a little bit to the threat of usage caps and zero rating, this entire mess is, in large degree, thanks to the FCC's failure to craft tougher net neutrality rules. The agency ignored net neutrality advocates and didn't ban zero rating outright. And despite claiming it would take a "case by case" approach to anti-competitive behavior on this front, the FCC turned a blind eye while Comcast, Verizon and AT&T all began taking advantage of the omission to give their own content a leg up. Now, it's incredibly unlikely we'll see actual FCC enforcement on this subject anytime soon, if ever.

It seems possible the FCC expected it would have time to examine the issue further under a Clinton administration. But with Trump's surprise win of the Presidency, it's not only likely that anti-competitive abuses of zero rating will never be banned, Trump's FCC transition team is giving every indication that they intend to dismantle the net neutrality rules we do have, entirely. With no hyperbole intended, you're witnessing the death of net neutrality, and it's arriving not with a bang but with a whimper, some smug AT&T platitudes, and the thunderous applause of a misled populace that thinks it's getting something for free.
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Filed Under: competition, consumers, fcc, zero rating
Companies: at&t, directv


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Nov 2016 @ 8:40am

    Elon Musk's global internet satellite plan can't come fast enough.

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