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Internet companies seek answers on wireless streaming freebies

Tech companies that supported the FCC's Net neutrality rules ask the agency to make public its review of wireless service plans that exempt certain content from data caps.

A group of technology companies and advocates is asking regulators to be more open about their review of new wireless plans that could violate Net neutrality rules.

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Several tech companies sent a letter to the FCC asking the agency to be more open about its inquiry into zero-rating plans that may violate Net neutrality rules.

FCC

A total of 59 Internet companies, including Yelp, Foursquare, Kickstarter and Pinterest, along with several advocacy groups, sent a letter Tuesday to the Federal Communications Commission asking the agency to make public a review of so-called "zero-rating" service plans offered by several Internet service providers.

Zero-rating is a practice in which wireless and broadband providers exempt certain applications or services from monthly data caps. T-Mobile's Binge On service, which allows customers to stream unlimited video from certain services, is one example. Verizon's FreeBee program allows content owners to pay for a customer's data usage while using their service.

While the practice offers some benefits to customers, critics say it violates the agency's Net neutrality principles, which requires all services on the Internet be treated the same. They claim it puts smaller competitors at a disadvantage and highlights the fact that data caps are unnecessary. Carriers say they are simply experimenting with new business models that will make service more affordable for consumers.

The FCC's Net neutrality rules, adopted in February 2015, don't explicitly ban such deals. Instead, they allow the agency to review complaints individually. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler initially praised T-Mobile's BingeOn service as innovative. But after Net neutrality supporters expressed concern over the plans, the agency sent letters to several service providers, including AT&T, Comcast and T-Mobile, asking each company for details about its specific programs. The FCC has said it's met with each of the companies privately, but hasn't talked about the specifics from those discussions.

The companies that signed the letter Tuesday said they want more visibility in the debate. They argue that there are enough companies offering zero-rated services that the decisions the FCC makes based on its case-by-case review will end up having the same effect as a new rule. But such a process shuts out input from the public.

"We urge you to open a public process to inform your evaluation of existing zero-­rating plans," the letter said. "The FCC's process in this critical area would be immeasurably enriched by the participation of diverse stakeholders, many of whose input helped shape the Open Internet rules."

Comcast has consistently said that its Stream TV service, which allows Xfinity cable TV subscribers to stream video to mobile devices, is not a zero-rated service because it's an extension of its cable service. The company declined to comment on the letter the companies sent to the FCC. Verizon also declined to comment.

The FCC did not respond immediately for comment. AT&T and T-Mobile were also unavailable for comment.