FCC to watch AT&T data program

The head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is promising a keep a close eye on AT&T’s recent announcement that some companies would be able to shoulder the cost for consumers using their data.

On Monday, AT&T unveiled a new program that would allow companies to pay for consumers’ data while using their site or application. The firm compared its Sponsored Data program to 1-800 numbers, which allow the person being called to cover the charges.

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FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said on Thursday that the telecommunications company’s plan was a perfect example of how the commission should maintain a watchful but hands-off approach to secure the open Internet. 

“It may well be that the kind of offering AT&T has announced enables increased competition and increased efficiency, both things that benefit consumers,” he said at an event at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., according to prepared remarks.

“But, again, history instructs us that not all new proposals have been benign. There has to be some ability on the part of government to oversee, to assess, and, if warranted, to intervene.”

Wheeler added that he wanted to promote competition and was not pushing for government intervention “unless there is an unmistakable warrant for it.”

AT&T senior executive vice president Jim Cicconi on Thursday said that the company was “completely confident” that the program complies with the FCC's net neutrality rules.

“The bottom line is that this can save money for our customers. We see no reason why this is not a good thing.”

Some public interest groups have jumped to criticize the plan, however. They say that it threatens to undermine the impartial nature of content on the Internet.

Michael Weinberg, the head of Public Knowledge, wrote a letter to the FCC on Thursday urging it to open an investigation into the program.

“The future of the web and data transfer depends on preserving an open Internet. A pay-for-play model for companies to reach subscribers won't help innovation, will surely stifle new entrants, and has no upside for consumers,” he said in a statement.

- This story was updated with AT&T's comment at 5:13 p.m.