FCC To Consider Whether Data Caps, Privacy Practices Affect Broadband Adoption

Thousands of broadband users recently wrote to the Federal Communications Commission to express complaints about their broadband providers.

A good portion of the grievances appear to concern data caps, or pay-per-byte billing models -- at least judging from 50 written complaints recently released by the FCC.

Those critics accused their providers of violating net neutrality rules -- although it's actually not yet clear whether data caps or usage-based billing violate the open Internet order. In fact, the FCC said when it issued the regulations that it will take a case-by-case approach to evaluating whether pay-per-byte billing violates net neutrality principles.

The FCC might not decide that question for a while. But the agency indicated on Thursday that it could look at data caps in another context: The FCC put out a request for comment on whether the 2016 annual report on the state of broadband should examine pay-per-byte billing models' impact on deployment.



The agency also asked for comment on whether privacy concerns are affecting broadband use. In addition, the FCC is seeking comment on whether to consider issues like quality of broadband service in its upcoming report.

Recent annual reports on the state of broadband have concluded that high-speed Web access is not being deployed in a "reasonable and timely fashion."

If next year's report also concludes that broadband deployment is problematic, and that data caps -- or broadband providers' tracking practices -- are hindering adoption, the agency could have extra ammunition for new regulations.

FCC Chairman Wheeler already is on record as saying the agency will move forward this fall with new privacy rules. He also has made clear that he believes privacy anxieties can affect people's use of the Internet. “Demand for broadband," Wheeler said in a recent speech, "is affected by consumers’ perceptions about the potential non-monetary costs of using it.”

While the FCC hasn't yet proposed any specific privacy regulations, the agency appears likely to examine at least two practices: Verizon's decision to inject "supercookies" into mobile Web traffic, and AT&T's strategy of charging higher fees to U-Verse subscribers who opt out of receiving targeted ads.

The FCC's move comes several weeks after nine senators urged the agency to prohibit providers from sharing information about customers' Web activity without their opt-in consent.

"ISPs should gain affirmative express consent from consumers before using or sharing information beyond what a consumer would reasonably expect an ISP to use and share in order to deliver service and mange its networks," Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and eight others said in a recent letter to the FCC. "This includes sharing information with affiliates, as well as for advertising or marketing purposes."

It remains to be seen whether the FCC agrees.

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