Opening the Door to Data
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
Posted by: Nick Lee
The communications and media landscape is in a period of explosive growth, leading to expanded wireless broadband access and increased consumer demand for faster and cheaper mobile broadband service. In response, providers have created “sponsored data” or “zero-rated” mobile offerings that allow access to multimedia content without counting against viewers’ data allowances. We should continue to embrace these pro-consumer offerings that are opening the door to broadband access and offering competitive options from a cost perspective.
Many people, especially those with a low-income and people of color, rely heavily on mobile service for things like employment opportunities, healthcare, and educational content. Asian Americans are especially likely to use mobile devices to consume content, and according to Neilsen they own smartphones and tablets at a higher rate than the general population. Zero- rating helps these consumers stretch their mobile data plans further, and can allow people to cut back on, or even eliminate, their pricey home broadband and cable packages.
Unsurprisingly, cap-free video streaming has become enormously popular. This has spurred a variety of “free data” plans from the wireless industry today, and we foresee further development of new arrangements that will enhance mobile data users’ experiences in the internet ecosystem.
Experimentation with service packages has yielded a range of options. For example, AT&T and DIRECTV’s new video offering known as Data Free TV provides consumers access to entertainment without counting it toward their monthly data-usage allowance. AT&T’s mobile subscribers can now watch videos, live sports, and content from top channels on DIRECTV NOW without worrying about data overage charges.
Despite such popularity and promise, free data has come under attack by some members of Congress and federal agencies for undermining the spirit of the Federal Communication Commission’s Open Internet order. Recently, the FCC issued letters to several service providers expressing serious problems with their free data plans. This is a departure from the Commission’s original stance on free data services, and has injected a level of regulatory uncertainty for service providers and consumers alike.
In general, OCA supports government policies that are reasonable, provide a predictable market environment, and drive competition that produces benefits to the public. It’s clear that providers offering zero-rating and sponsored plans have proven they are responding to consumer demand. We believe imposing heavy-handed regulation on free data would result in negative consequences.
To date, no evidence has shown consumers are harmed as a result of zero-rating programs. The FCC should, as was the agency’s initial view, allow different types of free data plans to be provided in the marketplace, while providing an oversight role.
We hope that policymakers continue to recognize the profound benefits that wireless internet connectivity delivers to diverse communities, and exercise an abundance of caution when it comes to regulation.