End in Sight for FCC War on Free?

Say what you will about the changing political tides in the nation’s capital, but there remains at least one issue that can unite Americans across the partisan divide: a shared love of their mobile devices and an ardent devotion to the concept of “free.”

In recent weeks, the Federal Communications Commission’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau has drawn concern from virtually all corners with its increasingly sharp critiques of innovative offerings that allow U.S. mobile consumers to enjoy more music, video and other bandwidth-intensive wireless content without seeing rising usage count against their data plans.

Those new offerings are the latest field of engagement in a ferociously competitive U.S. wireless market, and consumers are wasting no time reaping the benefits—embracing T-Mobile’s Binge On and ONE, Verizon’s FreeBee Data service and AT&T’s DirecTV Now, among other plans. In today’s digital economy, wireless consumers are shunning a one-size-fits-all approach and embracing these new offerings that make it possible (and more affordable) to access the internet over mobile.

Yet over the course of the past year, the FCC’s wireless bureau has begun questioning if these free data services somehow threaten competition. That assertion flies in the face of the day-to-day experience of wireless consumers. One need not look far for ample evidence of a vibrantly competitive mobile ecosystem that is constantly evolving to meet the insatiable appetite for mobile connectivity. Indeed, anyone who turns on a television this holiday season won’t be able to escape it: The top four national wireless providers are routinely ranked among the top 10 U.S. advertising spenders. They have to stay in front of all Americans to attract and keep their customers and make clear they are constantly looking for new ways to find an edge, from data rollover plans to these new free-data perks.

And consumers love the results. In fact, Mobile Future previously conducted a national survey to better understand how wireless consumers viewed these new offerings. What did we find? Consumers across the board wanted the power to determine the fate of emerging business models. Consistent with the regulatory outlook of the new administration and incoming FCC majority, a full 90 percent of consumers said they believe less regulation would spur more innovation. And, nearly 88 percent said government should not have any involvement in approving new wireless business models—leaving offerings to succeed or fail based on their reception by consumers.

While the current administration has appropriately focused on making available additional spectrum to meet consumers’ growing appetites for mobile data, the FCC in recent years has expanded its control over the wireless marketplace in contradiction of consumers’ clear preferences, including by reclassifying mobile broadband networks as garden variety utilities.

Fresh leadership means a fresh perspective on these recent and regressive regulatory decisions and should include a fresh look at what consumers are clearly demonstrating they want from their wireless experience. Such a review and reset is overdue, and it is welcome by wireless innovators.

We stand ready to make the most of what mobile innovation can contribute for our nation.


Diane Smith is a board adviser to Mobile Future. She is an attorney, entrepreneur and author who has worked on the launch of competitive long distance, mobile and IPTV industries.

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