Will the FCC strike down AT&T’s Sponsored Data plan?

January 8

U.S. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler (REUTERS/Gary Cameron)

Its chairman won't rule it out.

In a Q&A session Wednesday with Consumer Electronics Association chief Gary Shapiro, the nation's top telecom regulator indicated that he'd be watching closely as AT&T rolled out a new offering called Sponsored Data, which promises to keep certain mobile browsing from counting against your monthly data cap but which has raised the ire of network neutrality advocates.

Sponsored Data makes it possible for companies to subsidize your use of their online services by paying AT&T a separate fee. While the plan frees up more data per month for AT&T's customers, Internet advocates fear that content creators will be at a disadvantage if they can't afford to pay up.

"My attitude is, let's take a look at what this is," said FCC chairman Tom Wheeler. "Let's take a look at how it operates. ... If it interferes with the operation of the Internet ... if it develops into an anti-competitive practice ... if it does have some kind of preferential treatment given somewhere, then that is cause for us to intervene."

Wheeler's comments don't do much to clarify his cryptic positions on network neutrality; the agency head has previously voiced his support for the "open Internet" but has left open the prospect of letting Internet providers create a tiered system where some types of traffic enjoy an advantage over others. Critics worry that such a system would make it harder for startups to enter the market.

In the case of AT&T, the Sponsored Data plan appears to move the mobile Internet a step in that direction — although current FCC regulations specifically exempt the wireless industry from net neutrality rules.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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