Yesterday the FCC unveiled a proposal to put tougher net neutrality protections in place, banning paid prioritization or “Internet fast lanes” as well as regulating interconnection or peering deals like those between Netflix and several ISPs. Notably absent from the proposal was any mention of zero-rating, or allowing data to be downloaded from certain sources without counting towards a customer’s data cap. Many tech companies and telecoms have already been toying with this idea, including Facebook and AT&T.
Data caps have long been a consistent worry of mobile users, many of whom monitor their data usage closely, as going over an often low cap could result in throttled speeds or costly overage charges. Several Internet service providers like Comcast also put monthly caps on residential broadband connections. While the net neutrality debate has thus far focused on potential for ISPs to meddle with data speeds, not quantities, many are raising concerns that zero-rating represents a big net neutrality loophole that could once again give larger incumbents an unfair advantage over startups.
Data conscious users could easily be pushed towards zero-rated sources of content over those that would count towards their data cap. A single HD video can take a huge chunk out of a monthly mobile data plan allowance, and those who frequently stream HD video or download large video games also run the risk of hitting residential data caps. The potential exists for ISPs, many of whom are also media companies, to use a combination of data caps and zero-rating to steer their customers towards their own affiliates, essentially creating the same problem presented by the “fast lane” proposal.