Last week, the Federal Communications Commission said for the first time that AT&T appears to violate net neutrality principles by exempting DirecTV video from customers' data caps.
The FCC's Republicans promptly criticized that move, while also pointing out that the agency could come to a different conclusion next year. "Any potential action the Bureau may be considering can be reviewed and potentially reversed within weeks," Commissioner Michael O'Rielly said in a statement issued late last week.
O'Rielly also says the FCC's decision to condemn zero-rating now -- just several weeks before President-elect Donald Trump takes office -- runs counter to a recent request by Senate Commerce Committee chair Sen. John Thune (R-South Dakota). The lawmaker recently told Wheeler it would be "counterproductive for the FCC to consider complex and controversial items that the new Congress and new Administration will have an interest in reviewing."
O'Rielly stated that it "would be difficult to come up with a better example of a complex, controversial policy at the current Commission than this attempt to intimidate providers in order to shut down popular offerings to consumers."
AT&T's "Data-Free TV" is a zero-rating program that allows wireless customers who purchase DirecTV to watch video through the provider's mobile app without burning through their monthly data caps.
The telecom says consumers like the program, which lets them access streaming video without worrying about incurring charges for exceeding their data caps.
But consumer advocates argue that zero-rating programs give people an incentive to watch video from particular companies -- especially affiliated ones -- at the expense of competitors like Netflix and Amazon Prime.
FCC Wireless Telecommunications Bureau Chief Jon Wilkins indicated the agency agrees with advocates on that point. Wilkins said in a letter to AT&T that its data-free tv "strongly favors AT&T's own video offerings while unreasonably discriminating against unaffiliated ... providers."
GOP Commissioner Ajit Pai also criticized the agency for doing an "end-run around Congress's clear instructions."
He added: "Any unilateral action taken by the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau at the Chairman’s direction in the next 49 days can quickly be undone by that same bureau after January 20, 2017."