Rated Z

One of the more contentious issues surrounding the concept of network neutrality is rearing up anew thanks in part to a convergence of streaming video and wireless data networks.

The issue goes by the name “zero rating.” It refers to the practice where wireless carriers ignore data usage tied to selected streaming services when the carriers calculate how much bandwidth a customer is racking up. With the launch of HBO Max by AT&T, zero rating is in the news again. A trio of U.S. senators last week expressed concerns to AT&T about the company’s decision (first reported by The Verge) to allow HBO Max traffic to pass across AT&T’s wireless network without triggering the bandwidth meter. They think it’s unfair for AT&T to favor its own video service by ignoring data usage while the company counts bandwidth related to non-aligned video services such as Netflix or Disney+.

Zero rating can be confusing because of changes that have occurred in the telecommunications market since the issue first cropped up during the 2016-2017 debates around net neutrality regulations. For one thing, the onset of “unlimited” data plans from wireless carriers would seem to make the issue moot. Why should anyone care whether video usage counts toward monthly bandwidth caps when, as the term “unlimited” suggests, there are no caps anymore? The answer, as many a mobile device user recognizes, is that “unlimited” has its limits. Carriers may throttle data speeds for customers who have exceeded data allotments. T-Mobile, which packages video services Quibi and Netflix into unlimited data plans, notes that “During congestion, the small fraction of customers using >50GB/mo. may notice reduced speeds until [the] next bill cycle due to data prioritization.”

Data caps also can come into play in the fixed network world, where certain ISPs apply surcharges to customers who exceed generous monthly allotments. Some, including Cable One, allow customers to pay additional amounts for truly unlimited plans, although CEO Julie Laulis recently told analysts few subscribers choose (or need) those add-ons.

Next? In a letter to AT&T, Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA),  Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) argued AT&T is violating its own pledge to abide by open Internet principles, and requested an explanation in writing by June 25. Still, with the dissolution of earlier net neutrality rules per a 2018 FCC repeal, there may be no overt regulatory authority or will to prevent AT&T and others from applying different practices to different streaming services. Setting aside the legal issues momentarily, it’s worth keeping in mind why the zero rating issue matters from a business/competitive perspective. As the nation’s wireless networks advance in terms of speeds, throughput and performance, carriers are more willing to experiment with a role traditionally played by cable and satellite TV providers: delivering television signals to glass screens. Although the majority of HBO Max accounts are tied to cable/satellite subscriptions, AT&T does promote HBO Max as an add-on component for selected wireless plans. The attention given to the issue in Washington, DC reminds us how AT&T Mobility, with more than 140 million U.S. wireless connections, has emerged as a power player on the video distribution scene.

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