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FCC’s Wheeler Keeping Eye on AT&T’s Sponsored Data

Thu, 01/09/2014 - 4:30pm
Ben Munson

In his first live appearance in Silicon Valley as chairman of the FCC, Tom Wheeler promised to watch carefully AT&T’s plans to offer sponsored data.

Wheeler voiced his support for the principles outlined in the Open Internet Order and advocated turning those principles into “justiciable practices on the basis of facts arising from specific circumstances.”

The specific circumstance of the moment is AT&T’s CES announcement that the carrier will begin offering sponsored content, allowing internet companies to cover the data costs of wireless customers accessing their mobile content. The move has drawn much criticism from proponents of net neutrality. The biggest fear is that internet companies pushing large amounts of particularly rich data will be able to buy preferential treatment and effectively shut out smaller competitors.

Wheeler made it clear the FCC’s role is “to assure that open access not only means getting on the network, but also getting to the network.”

He was clear that AT&T’s offer could lead to increased competition and efficiency and should not be prohibited out of hand. But he also acknowledged that sponsored data might not be that benign.

“I am not interested in protecting competitors from competition, nor am I interested in presiding over a festival of rent seeking. But I am committed to maintaining our networks as conduits for commerce large and small,” Wheeler said in prepared remarks.

Wheeler said that where “significant, persistent market power exists or significant negative externalities exist,” the FCC may intervene to protect public interest.

Wheeler’s speech today echoes comments he made yesterday at CES. At this year’s event in Las Vegas, Wheeler promised to monitor AT&T’s sponsored data and step in if the program endangers competition and an open internet.

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