Sponsored Data Caps — Does It Violate Net Neutrality?

One of the driving principles of Net Neutrality is the fact that all data is essentially created equal. ISPs are forbidden from segregating Internet traffic or creating “fast lanes” for companies looking to deliver streaming video or other rich media content into your home. This theoretically creates a level field where content creators — no matter their size — compete equally for the eyes of the consumer.

Net Neutrality and Data Caps

Recently, some Internet providers have been providing “sponsored data caps” which means the data consumed downloading or streaming the relevant content doesn’t count against a monthly data cap. This practice has drawn notice from the FCC, questioning whether it violates Net Neutrality. Let’s take a closer look at the details.

The FCC Looking at Sponsored Data Plans

The FCC recently became interested in the major ISPs use of sponsored data plans, also known as “zero-rating,” which exempts certain content from a user’s monthly data allowance. As noted in the linked article from December, Comcast, AT&T, and T-Mobile were requested to talk about the issue with the FCC by January 15th.

FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler commented on their request, “This is not an investigation. This is not any enforcement. This is to help us stay informed as to what the practices are, as we said we would do in the Open Internet Order.” The Commission simply wants to understand how the services operate while still providing for a “free and open” Internet.

The three mentioned companies exempt data in different ways. Comcast uses it for its own “Stream TV” in-home streaming service. T-Mobile’s Binge On service doesn’t count against a monthly data allowance, but the company reduces the quality of the video for users who don’t opt out of the exemption. AT&T charges advertisers a fee to deliver their content without it counting against someone’s mobile data cap.

What Should the Average Internet User Do?

Most Internet users needn’t worry about taking advantage of a sponsored data plan if it becomes available. If the video or music content in question is of interest to you, by all means enjoy it without any worries. The FCC is responsible for enforcing Net Neutrality regulations, and since this practice is a borderline violation, obviously they need to find out more.

Stay tuned for any further news about Net Neutrality in the coming year. In the meantime, check your Internet speed regularly to ensure your ISP is keeping up their end of the bargain!