FCC Closes Probe of Wireless Providers’ Zero-Rating Plans

(Rob Kunzig/Morning Consult)

The Federal Communications Commission on Friday closed an investigation into the sponsored data and zero-rating plans pursued by AT&T Mobility, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless.

The conclusion of the inquiry — which began in November, during former Democratic Chairman Tom Wheeler’s tenure — comes after the FCC’s Wireless Bureau issued a report on Jan. 11 saying AT&T was likely violating the commission’s rules prohibiting certain zero-rating data practices.

The FCC’s Wireless Bureau retracted the zero-rating report on Friday along with “any and all guidance, determinations, and conclusions contained therein, including the document’s draft framework.”

Zero-rated data plans allow consumers to visit certain websites and stream specific content without having it count against their data caps. Companies that offer the plans say they are popular with consumers, but critics contend that they allow larger wireless and tech companies to freeze out competitors.

When the report was released on Jan. 11, Commissioner Ajit Pai (R) suggested that this kind of “regulatory spasm” would not continue once he assumed the chairmanship. He became chairman after President Donald Trump took office.

In a brief blog post published Friday, AT&T hailed the FCC’s action as a “win for the millions of consumers who are reaping the benefits of services made available through free data programs.”

“We’re pleased that these innovative products will be able to continue to flourish in the marketplace,” AT&T added.

Mignon Clyburn, the sole Democratic commissioner at the FCC, slammed the decision in a statement Friday.

Clyburn said the Wireless Bureau’s brief order rescinding the zero-rating report — along with several other similar decisions reached by other FCC bureaus on Friday — violates the Administrative Procedure Act. She said her office had sought more time to review the changes, but was rebuffed by the chairman’s office.

“It is disappointing to see this chairman engage in the same actions for which he criticized the prior chairman,” Clyburn said. “I am hopeful that in the future this commission, consistent with our shared commitment to increased transparency, will heed the APA’s requirement for reasoned decision-making.”

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