So when the FCC's 2015 net neutrality rules were passed, we warned how the agency's failure to include zero rating (exempting an ISP's own content or the content of a deep-pocketed partner) was going to let ISPs creatively engage in anti-competitive behavior. And sure enough, companies like Verizon and AT&T began exempting their own content from usage caps, giving them a leg up in the market. Carriers like Sprint similarly began to fracture the internet experience, at one point charging users more money if they wanted to enjoy music, video and games without having their connection throttled.
T-Mobile pushed these creative barriers further with its Binge On offering, which exempted only the biggest and most popular video services from the company's usage caps. This automatically put thousands of smaller video providers, non-profits, educational institutions and startups at a notable market disadvantage, but by and large nobody outside of the EFF and academia gave much of a damn because a) ill-informed consumers are happy laboring under the illusion that they're getting something for free and b) the public (and by proxy media) was lazy and tired of debating net neutrality.
Just as the Wheeler FCC realized the error of their ways and began showing signs of cracking down on carriers that use usage caps and zero rating as an anti-competitive weapon, Trump won the election and Ajit Pai's FCC began dismantling the rules entirely. You know, for "freedom." As the U.S. moved further away from a truly open internet, regulators in other countries (like India) moved to prohibit ISPs from using usage caps or zero rating as an anti-competitive bludgeon against smaller operators, startups and non-profits.
With the rules now on the chopping block, and ISPs successfully gutting FCC and state oversight of ISPs, zero rating is going to be the least of our problems. We're back to now worrying about things like "paid prioritization," or the ability of ISPs to give their own video content (or the content of the deepest-pocketed companies) priority treatment on the network. And ISPs that were previously against such deals are now walking back their promises at an unsurprising pace.
Throughout all of this, carriers like Sprint repeatedly professed their breathless dedication to net neutrality while they continued to implement policies that made consumer connectivity less transparent, more expensive, and less open. And speaking at the Mobile World Congress this week, Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure made it clear that the company doesn't think this whole paid prioritization thing is that big of a problem, either:
"I don’t think there’s anything wrong for you to eventually charge a higher price for a faster access to your network,” Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure said during a keynote discussion here at the Mobile World Congress trade show. “You have this anyway. In the United States in many roads you drive, you have a faster road and you pay more. There’s nothing wrong with that. We’re still determining what is going to be the price for 5G and how we’re going to charge you, but the economics say, consumers are willing to pay more for a better service and are willing to pay less for a different type of service."
Except net neutrality rules have always carved out massive exemptions for prioritization (medical services, high-end VOIP service, etc.). It's only the anti-competitive paid prioritization deals the rules hamstrung. ISP executives know this, they just like to conflate the two to justify their quest to turn the internet into the modern equivalent of mid nineties walled gardens like AOL. Claure proceeded to imply that past net neutrality rules didn't let the company "manage its networks," which was never the case:
"We’re big believers in the open internet,” Claure said. “I believe there needs to be some light regulation, and it needs to be very light, in order for us to manage our networks."
Added Claure: “We need to manage our networks … That’s the most important thing to us."
Again though, the FCC's net neutrality rules never stopped Sprint from "managing its networks." In fact it took years of hashing out specifics in the rules to ensure that would never be a problem. Meanwhile, you don't get to proclaim you're "big believers in the open internet," while at the same time pushing for changes that could completely tilt the whole god-damned thing on its axis by letting giant companies (often a company's own subsidiaries) pay for lower latency, higher priority, and better service -- leaving startups, non-profits and educational institutions in the dust.
Just a few years ago we were concerned that loopholes in the 2015 rules would result in caps, overage fees and zero rating being used anti-competitively (and they were and are). Now, with the FCC's rules officially slated to expire in April, most of those problems are going to appear god damned quaint in comparison with the nonsense awaiting all of us just over the horizon.