AT&T’s zero rating model is pretty much the nightmare scenario that internet advocates and pro-competition observers have been warning us about. That’s because AT&T owns DirecTV, and is now giving DirecTV Now privileged access to AT&T’s wireless internet customers. The corruption is so obvious here that it doesn’t need a fancy net neutrality metaphor — AT&T is clearly favoring a company it now owns over competitors.
The company stands to reap massive tolls on the other end of that “most favored nation” deal with DirecTV, because it also offers something called “sponsored data” to other companies that want the same kind of privileged access to AT&T customers. So, for example, if Netflix wants to compete fairly with DirecTV, it would need to pay AT&T to exempt its video traffic from data caps.
This is what ISPs really want the internet to look like: a bundle of premium services that run up the cost of access to their networks. It’s the same game internet companies have been playing from the beginning, when they got the government to classify them as “information services” instead of “telecommunications services” — the ISPs really don’t want to be “dumb pipes,” because there’s less money to be made when you just give people high-quality internet with no restrictions.
They’re using the same playbook: turn the internet into basic cable, and charge everyone for features and content on top of that. Then, charge competitors to compete with their own vertically integrated video services. It’s a two-way toll that ISPs have been trying to erect forever.
Republicans have been trying to gut the FCC for nearly a decade, and between Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress there’s probably enough support to dismantle net neutrality policy, if not the agency itself. If that happens, zero rating and sponsored data schemes could become completely monstrous.
I wish I could offer some optimism here, but I have the sinking feeling there are tough times ahead for us self-employed citizens who rely on an unvarnished internet for our bread and butter.