The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

FCC Moves Headlong into Free Data Investigation

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


In the latest net neutrality salvo, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Wireless Bureau has upped the ante on its investigation into free data plans offered by wireless providers on December 1, 2016.  At the core of the investigation is whether free data services offered to consumers violate net neutrality rules. 

The investigation has been ongoing since May 24, 2016, when net neutrality proponents demanded that the FCC review zero-rating or free data plans aimed at providing consumers with the abillity to view digital content without counting towards their plan data caps, to determine if these services violated the 2015 Open Internet Order (OIO).

While the investigation is ongoing, there are benefits to consumers receiving services that are not applied to their plan data limits.  According to a May 8, 2016 report by the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC), zero-rating is “poised to play a key role in helping to close the digital divide by addressing cost concerns and strengthening the value proposition offered to skeptical non-users, two key considerations for the millions of Americans who remain offline.”   

The timing of the increased scrutiny of zero-rating or free data plans is also suspect, given that Congressional leadership has requested the FCC to avoid controversial actions during the last few months of the current administration. 

As noted by FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, “In light of the multiple directives we have received from Congress to avoid directing attention and resources to complex or controversial matters, the staff of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau is inappropriately pressing forward and escalating its investigation of certain providers’ zero-rated video services.  It would be difficult to come up with a better example of a complex, controversial policy at the current Commission than this attempt to intimidate providers in order to shut down popular offerings to consumers.”

His colleague, Commissioner Ajit Pai added, “This end-run around Congress’s clear instruction is sad – and pointless.  For any unilateral action taken by the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau at the Chairman’s direction in the next 49 days can be quickly undone by that same bureau after January 20, 2017.”

This investigation is among the reasons that Congress and the incoming administration must review and modernize the Communications Act.  When the law was originally enacted, and throughout the subsequent amendments, lawmakers did not envision the communications methods now in use.  Subsequently, existing law is ill-equipped to respond to the rapidly changing communications ecosystem of today and into the future, and must be revamped.   

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