In perhaps the most futile government decision I’ve ever seen from the FCC, the agency last week ruled last week that AT&T was in violation of net neutrality rules with its zero-rated Sponsored Data plans. AT&T allows customers who buy DirecTV Now the ability to stream the service over cellphones without counting the data against wireless data caps. The agency didn’t take any action against AT&T as a result of the decision, and probably will not.
I call the gesture futile since it’s clear that the new Republican-led FCC is going to either gut or weaken the net neutrality rules. There are even those in Congress talking about disbanding the FCC and spreading its responsibilities elsewhere – something that would require a new Telecommunications Act. So it’s obvious that this decision doesn’t have any teeth.
I guess it’s not hard to understand that the current FCC staff wants to make one last stand for its signature policy. I don’t think there was anything in the history of the agency that got so much positive public feedback. It’s still hard to imagine that over a million people made formal comments in the FCC net neutrality docket.
And yet, as popular as the concept of net neutrality is – the concept of keeping an open internet – there probably is not a worst place to take a stand than zero-rating. This is a practice that the public is going to love. For the first time people will have the ability to watch video on cellphones without worrying about the stingy cellular data caps. I’m probably a bit old and my eyes have a problem enjoying video on a small cellphone screen. But after seeing my daughter watching video on her Apple smartwatch I am positive that this is going to be popular.
But zero-rating is eventually going to lead to exactly what net neutrality was designed to protect against. In this case AT&T is promoting its own programming with DirecTV Now, and perhaps there is nothing wrong with that. But it won’t be long until other content providers are going to be willing to pay AT&T to also carry their video on cellphones outside the data caps. And that will eventually create an environment where only the content of the biggest and richest companies will be sponsored.
The only video that will be available on cellphones will be from companies with the ability to pay AT&T to carry it. And that eventually means the end of innovation and of new start-ups. It means that Google and Facebook and Netflix will be available because they can afford to pay to sponsor their content, but that the next generations of companies that would naturally have supplanted them, as is inevitable in the tech world, will never get started. You can’t become popular if nobody watches you.
On the flip side, zero-rating is going to point out the hypocrisy of the current cellular data prices. A customer will be able to watch 100 gigabytes of DirecTV Now with no extra fees, but will quickly figure out that watching other video would have cost them $1,000 at the current price of $10 for each gigabyte of extra download. The supposed reason for the high data prices is to protect the cellular network – but it will quickly become clear that the high prices are only about profits. So perhaps this will begin the process of lowering the outrageous cost of cellular data – which is clearly the most expensive data in the world today.