Commentary

Advocates Want AT&T To Offer Broadband-Only Plans, Follow Neutrality Rules

AT&T's pending $48.5 billion merger with DirecTV will give the company even more reason to discourage customers from cutting the cord, a coalition of critics suggests in a new Federal Communications Commission filing.

“Should the transaction proceed, AT&T will obtain a massive video distribution business that it will have every incentive to protect from competitive threats,” Free Press, Public Knowledge, New America's Open Technology Institute, Dish Network and transit company Cogent say in a letter to the FCC dated Tuesday.

The organizations say that if regulators approve the deal (which seems likely, according to press reports), they should impose conditions that could prevent AT&T from hindering cord-cutters or thwarting online video distributors like Netflix.

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Among other conditions, the groups want AT&T to offer stand-alone broadband service at speeds of at least 25 Mbps for $29.95 a month or less. Free Press and the others say that AT&T should commit to doing so for at least seven years.

The advocacy groups (and Cogent and Dish) also say that AT&T should promise to follow the net neutrality rules for at least seven years -- even if the rules are vacated by the courts. The FCC imposed a similar condition when it approved Comcast's 2011 acquisition of NBC Universal.

Those rules flatly prohibit broadband providers from blocking traffic and creating paid fast lanes. The regulations also have a more vague "general conduct" provision that bans Internet access providers from thwarting consumers and content companies from reaching each other.

It's not yet clear how the FCC will interpret that general conduct standard. One of the biggest unresolved questions centers on how the rules will affect broadband providers' ability to set data caps. Some wireless providers already are touting "sponsored data" arrangements, which enable companies to pay for their data to be excluded from consumers' caps.

The FCC said in its net neutrality order that it will take a case-by-case approach to evaluating whether those arrangements violate the net neutrality rules. For now, the groups are urging the FCC to specifically prohibit AT&T from exempting any video service it owns from data caps.

Regulators haven't yet indicated what conditions they will seek for the merger, which could be approved within the next several weeks.

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