Franken Warns Regulators That AT&T/DirecTV Merger Could Affect Neutrality, Broadband Access

Regulators who are evaluating AT&T's bid to take over DirecTV should consider the telecom's recent history of “skirting the spirit” of neutrality principles, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) says.

“AT&T allegedly had blocked applications that compete with its own voice and messaging services, including Skype, Google Voice and Apple's FaceTime,” Franken writes in a letter to the Department of Justice and Federal Communications Commission.

“AT&T stopped blocking FaceTime only after the FCC began investigating whether AT&T's conduct violated the Open Internet Order,” Franken added, referring to the 2010 net neutrality rules. Those rules were invalidated by an appellate court earlier this year, and the FCC is now in the process of crafting new rules.

Consumer advocates accused AT&T of violating the neutrality rules in 2012, when the company said it would only allow consumers to use FaceTime on the 3G mobile network if they subscribe to a “shared data” plan. The company said at the time that customers on older plans -- who don't have unlimited voice calls -- could only use FaceTime on WiFi networks.

Consumer advocates Public Knowledge and Free Press argued that AT&T's decision violated the 2010 neutrality rule that prohibited wireless providers from impeding the use of competing apps. AT&T eventually backed away from its initial position, but only after much criticism.

Even though the 2010 regulations were struck down in court,  AT&T pledged to follow them for three years if its $48 billion DirecTV takeover is approved. But Franken suggests that AT&T's promise warrants scrutiny, given the company's history.

The lawmaker also wants regulators to make sure that AT&T doesn't implement policies that would hinder cord-cutting -- such as forcing consumers to accept bundled packages. “To protect consumer choice,” he says, “I believe that AT&T must thoroughly articulate its commitment to standalone broadband pricing.”

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