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Free Data! Not if the FCC Can Help It

By Katie McAuliffe | November 16, 2016

The Federal Communications Commission is once again extending its bureaucratic arm.  This time towards AT&T, in a supposed effort to protect consumers by shutting down the company’s “Data Free TV” program.

Yes.  The FCC is trying to make the case that giving customers more of what they want for free is consumer harm.  It appears Chairman Tom Wheeler's FCC wouldn't want any shampoo bottles with 20% more for free either.

 In a letter sent to AT&T’s Senior Vice President for Legislative Affairs, Robert Quinn, the FCC asked AT&T to address concerns that this practice is anti-competitive.  This is in response to AT&T exempting DirecTV, which AT&T owns, from data caps for its mobile customers.

This type of action by the FCC borders on harassment, and is the latest in a long line of policies that harm consumers. 

After dragging its feet on approving the AT&T/DirecTV merger in the first place, the FCC finally relented after imposing a strict requirement that the company not “zero rate” (give away to customers for free) its own services on wired connections. However, “Date Free TV” is only for mobile customers, and was a concerted effort to keep in line with the Commission’s requirements. Yet, the FCC still comes knocking to impose further restrictions.

The FCC’s constant attacks on free data are an example of its insistence on pursuing further restrictions that Congress has repeatedly disagreed with.

In a letter sent by Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR), the Congressmen urged the FCC to only pursue action that is required of the Commission by law. This avoids any conflict with policy the incoming Congress and administration may want to review.  Senator John Thune (R-SD) sent a letter as well, echoing the sentiment.

The FCC is trying to justify its latest, in a long string of interventions into the private sector, by saying AT&T is treating its subsidiary differently. This is a falsehood. AT&T has repeatedly informed the FCC that DirecTV pays for the right to have its content exempted. The FCC claims this is illegitimate, because the merger made the two companies an entity.

This indicates that, despite the FCC’s claim in the letter that “its concern is not with zero rating per se,” the Commission does intend to obstruct pro-consumer policies in the business place.

There is continued hope that the FCC will back off of its anti-consumer stance, as Democratic Commissioner, Mignon Clyburn, has broken with this trend to vow not to oppose or ban zero rating programs. The rest of the Commission should take Clyburn’s lead to allow consumers better and cheaper options for data services.


Photo Credit: 

Jon Gosier