Officials at the Federal Communications Commission are examining services offered by T-Mobile, AT&T and Comcast that let customers access mobile services without paying or using up the data allocated under their plans.
Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler noted that the agency had sent letters to the companies during a Thursday press conference.
The letters concern services that, in different ways, allow customers to access certain content without being charged for their data usage.
All are emblematic of a trend toward "zero-rating," or not charging customers for certain types of data consumption, among mobile and wired broadband providers. Some critics worry that zero-rating could violate the idea of net neutrality.
T-Mobile recently launched a service called Binge On that allows customers to use certain video streaming services without it counting against the caps on their data plans. AT&T is running a trial of a “sponsored data” program that allows outside parties to pay for customers’ data usage. The company also offers a service called Data Perks, which allows customers to earn extra data for engaging with content created by brands.
The Comcast service attracting the attention of the FCC is Stream TV, a new video service that does not count against the data cap the provider imposes in some markets.
"Our Stream TV service does not go over the public Internet — it is a cable service that only works in the customer's home," Comcast said in a statement. "It is not a so-called 'zero-rated' service. We are happy to cooperate with this request."
Critics worry that the services could impinge on the principle of net neutrality, or the idea that all traffic on the Internet should be treated in the same way. In February, the commission approved new net neutrality rules said that Internet providers could not block traffic, slow it down or offer some services faster delivery of their content in return for payment. They also include a broader “general conduct” rule.
Wheeler said last month that the agency would be “keeping an eye” on Binge On but also praised it as innovative. He said that the agency would monitor the service in the context of the general conduct rule.
In the letters, officials said that the commission wanted to “have all the facts” about how the three firms’ services relate “to the Commission's goal of maintaining a free and open Internet while incentivizing innovation and investment from all sources.”
The officials, Wireless Telecommunication Bureau Chief Roger Sherman and Wireline Competition Bureau Chief Matthew DelNero, asked representatives of the three companies to “make available relevant technical and business personnel for discussions” by Jan. 15.
“We look forward to talking with the FCC and sharing more details about Binge On," T-Mobile said in a statement. "This program provides both great customer choice and industry innovation that encourages competition and we believe it is absolutely in line with net neutrality rules.”
Wheeler painted the letters as part of the agency’s continued efforts to keep abreast of changes in the marketplace.
“Let me be real clear,” he said. “This is not an investigation, this is not an enforcement. This is help us stay informed as to what the practices are as we said we would do.”
But Republicans on the commission argued it was an investigation in everything but name.
“This is not simply a benign information inquiry,” said Ajit Pai, the more senior Republican commissioner. “The agency is obviously trying to gather facts to determine whether or not those services comport with the net neutrality regulations the majority adopted this last February.”
He argued that commissioners are able to meet with companies to hear about their newest services without using the trappings of the agency to bring firms to the table.
“I get all the facts I need short of sending them a letter saying the FCC would like you to come explain yourselves,” he said.
- Updated at 4:10 p.m.