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AT&T CEO Supports Open Internet, But Not as a Utility

25 Jan, 2017 By: Erik Gruenwedel

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson is not shy vocalizing his support for new U.S. President Donald Trump and the latter’s pick of Ajit Pai to head the Federal Communications Commission.

Speaking Jan. 25 on the telecom’s fiscal call, Stephenson recalled a recent meeting with Trump shortly after his inauguration, and how impressed he was with the 45th president’s knowledge of media distribution, concern about corporate taxes and regulation.  

The latter, Stephenson contends, could involve reworking net neutrality guidelines imposed by the FCC (under former chief Tom Wheeler) that mandate Internet service providers (ISPs) enable access to all video content and applications regardless of the source, without favoring or blocking particular products or websites.

The CEO said he favors net neutrality, but not classifying the Internet as a utility under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, which, in effect, renders ISPs as common carriers and subject to regulation.

Specifically, Stephenson (and other ISPs) takes issue with “zero rating,” an upstart marketing program that heralds sponsored data enabling AT&T subscribers to use select third-party services without impacting their monthly data plans. Using non-sponsored services results in data charges.

Critics contend “zero rating” is exactly what net neutrality seeks to combat. Stephenson hopes Pai will see otherwise, in addition to clarifying regulatory oversight over consumer privacy, among other issues.

“All I can base my thoughts on are Pai’s writings and his comments. He obviously was not a fan of Title II. He felt like it had gone entirely too far; we obviously tend to agree with him on that. We happen to be advocates of … the concept of neutrality, but [not] placing utility style regulation on our mobility and Internet businesses. There is no way anybody can argue that is not suppressive to investment,” he said.

The CEO doesn’t expect changes to AT&T’s “zero rating” program under Pai and a GOP-led FCC.

“We worked very diligently to put in place a mechanism that makes this capability available to all comers. Anybody who wants to take advantage of ‘zero rating’ can come in and take advantage of the lowest wholesale rate we offer,” Stephenson said. "We actually were quite confident that ‘zero rating,’ as we were implementing it, was fine under a Pai chairmanship or anybody else’s chairmanship.”


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