In another development that relates to the FCC’s net neutrality rules and to mobile data caps, a group of more than 50 public interest and consumer advocacy organizations wrote to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Monday to urge application of the FCC’s Open Internet rules to mobile and fixed Internet service provider (ISP) “zero rating” plans that exempt certain web-based content from monthly data caps. 

Parties signing the letter include the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Free Press, New America’s Open Technology Institute, and the Rural Broadband Policy Group.  The letter spotlights the zero rating practices of Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile, which are claimed to “distort competition, stifle innovation, limit user choice . . . and drive up prices.”  Noting that “ISPs can’t charge websites and applications for access to a fast lane” under the FCC’s Open Internet rules, the groups complained that “sponsored data” plans offered by Verizon and AT&T “motivate ISPs to keep data caps low in order to create pressure for companies to pay to circumvent the caps.”  The groups also advised Wheeler that such plans “distort user choicer by pushing people towards websites with deep pockets and away from smaller applications who can’t afford the toll.”  While acknowledging that T-Mobile doesn’t charge website participants in its zero-rated “BingeOn” program for data cap exemptions, the groups observed that T-Mobile imposes “substantial—and proprietary—technical requirements” which “make it difficult for many startups, small players and non-commercial” entities to participate.  Asserting that all such plans “run afoul of both the spirit of net neutrality and of the Open Internet rules,” the letter thus calls on the FCC to “protect Internet users and enforce its Open Internet rules.” 

Noting that the FCC is currently conducting an investigation into zero-rating, an FCC spokesman told reporters that “Commission staff continues to learn about the new offerings, and meetings with stakeholders are ongoing.”  Although officials of AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile offered no comment, an executive of wireless association CTIA observed that, because “free data services are pro-consumer innovative offerings,” the FCC “should reject efforts to take away from consumers these free  . . . services and options.”