Verizon says it will soon join the growing list of companies collectively tap dancing around the country’s net neutrality rules. The company says it will soon start engaging in “zero rating,” or the process of letting some content (read: the companies willing to pay entrenched telecom providers a toll) bypass an ISP’s monthly data usage caps. Company executive Marni Walden says Verizon’s going to begin trials of a new zero rating program sometime in the next few weeks, with plans to more seriously deploy the efforts sometime in the early part of 2016:
“The capabilities we’ve built allow us to break down any byte that is carried across our network and have all or a portion of that sponsored,” Verizon Executive VP Marni Walden said during a wide-ranging interview this week…Sponsored data, as the name implies, allows consumers to access certain content without having to eat into their own data plans. Instead, a third party pays for it. Verizon is working with just a few partners in the testing phase, but said next year this feature will be available to all comers at an affordable rate.
“We’ll be out in a larger commercial way in the first quarter of 2016,” Walden said.
For the record, Verizon’s definition of “affordable” is likely not the same as everyone else’s. Taking a look at Verizon’s patent filing from earlier this year, the service functions much like AT&T’s controversial sponsored data program, which lets companies pay AT&T a premium in order for their apps and content to get special, highlighted, cap-exempt status:
“The device determines whether the data usage is sponsored by a sponsor based on the identifier and the information associated with the data usage…The device assigns charges for the data usage to an account associated with the user device when the data usage is not sponsored by the sponsor, or to an account associated with the sponsor when the data usage is sponsored by the sponsor.”
That’s a lot of sponsoring. More simply, the technology lets you pay Verizon to get a leg up over your competitors, who may not be able to afford to pay Verizon for the same privilege. It’s an idea that’s been highly criticized for the fact that it puts smaller companies (and especially independents and nonprofits) at a distinct and immediate market disadvantage. And while some implementations of zero rating may seem better than others (like T-Mobile’s Binge On, which exempts all video from usage caps), the precedent of giving an ISP this kind of authority remains troubling to those intimate with the telecom industry’s long, long history of anti-competitive behavior.
And because the FCC’s net neutrality rules didn’t specifically ban zero rating, so far the agency has been happy to look the other way as companies “experiment” with giving select content preferential treatment. Not only have Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon all started experimenting with zero rating, but Comcast last month announced it would be exempting its own streaming service from its usage caps,…