T-Mobile is again pushing the envelope on net neutrality with a new zero-rating service: The company said today it will exempt the popular Pokemon Go from its customers' monthly data allotments until August of 2017.
The move means that T-Mobile customers will be able to play the popular augmented reality game without incurring extra charges.
As with other zero-ratings plans, consumers aren't likely to complain. After all, they're getting a free benefit -- at least, if they play Pokemon Go.
But net neutrality advocates have long warned that broadband carriers can implement data caps -- and their exemptions -- in ways that undermine net neutrality principles. "They distort competition, thwart innovation, threaten free speech, and restrict consumer choice," advocates said about zero-rating services in an FCC filing earlier this year.
T-Mobile has been among the biggest proponent of zero-ratings services. Last year, the company launched "Binge On" -- which exempts video streams offered by around 100 companies from data caps, but also throttles all video to 1.5 Mbps. Binge On is activated by default, but users can turn it off.
Other wireless companies also offer zero-ratings services: AT&T and Verizon zero-rate data from companies that pay to sponsor it, and in Verizon's case, from its own video service, go90. Those initiatives, while also controversial, don't appear to have drawn the same degree of attention as T-Mobile's.
The net neutrality rules prohibit broadband providers from blocking or degrading service and from creating online fast lanes. The regulations also broadly ban Internet service providers from engaging in conduct that interferes with people's ability to access Web content. Zero-rating could violate that prohibition depending on the circumstances, but the FCC so far has said only that it will take a case-by-case approach to the question.
But at least some observers think the FCC will have a hard time cracking down on companies for giving consumers free benefits.
Earlier this week, former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, a Clinton appointee, reportedly predicted the current agency will allow carriers to implement zero-rate services. "Being against free is not very popular," he reportedly said at a conference of the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council.
T-Mobile recently told the FCC that consumers have streamed over 500 million hours of free videos since the launch of Binge On last year, and that 92% of customers say they intend to watch more videos, thanks to the zero-rating service.