FCC to Wait and See on AT&T-Sponsored Data Plan

Chairman and commissioners unsure if plan violates net neutrality rules

Critics of AT&T’s sponsored data plan say it’s a clear violation of the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules, but the FCC isn’t so sure.

Based on comments made at two panels at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, both FCC chairman Tom Wheeler and the four commissioners are clearly taking a wait and see attitude.

AT&T Wireless announced earlier this week it would allow video content providers to subsidize the cost of mobile streaming minutes used by viewers of the sponsored content. Public interest groups like Free Press and Public Knowledge said the scheme was anti-competitive because it would favor established video providers who can afford to pay the subsidies over smaller video providers that may have fewer resources.

In a one-on-one question-and-answer session with the Consumer Electronics Association president and CEO Gary Shapiro, Wheeler said he would look at the controversial plan.

"My attitude is let's take a look at what this is. Let’s take a look at how it operates. If it interferes with the operation of the Internet, if it develops into an anti-competitive practice, if it does have some kind of preferential treatment, then that is cause for us to intervene," Wheeler said.

Wheeler’s fellow commissioners, in a panel immediately following, also declined to make any quick decisions.

“I don’t want to pass regulatory judgment right now,” said commissioner and former acting chairwoman Mignon Clyburn.

“We need to let things develop,” agreed commissioner Ajit Pai. “The FCC shouldn’t a priori declare business models out of bounds.”

While all the commissioners support an open Internet, none would commit on what direction the FCC might take on its net neutrality rules if the DC Circuit Court strikes all or part of them down.

“The prudent thing to do is wait and see,” said commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.

Republicans Ajit Pai and Mike O’Rielly would be happy if the court ruled against the FCC in the case.