As AT&T falls behind T-Mobile in streaming, an executive blames net neutrality

An AT&T executive says the FCC's net neutrality rules have forced the company to shelve products, as its competitors like T-Mobile and Comcast push forward with products that might violate the FCC's rules.

Net neutrality AT&T T-Mobile Binge On Comcast Stream TV
Credit: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Unlike some of its competitors, like Comcast and T-Mobile, which have released products that some believe violate the FCC's net neutrality regulations, AT&T was apparently forced to shelve several new products as a result of the new regulations.

Speaking at the Phoenix Center's annual U.S. Telecoms Symposium earlier this week, AT&T senior vice president Bob Quinn said that, since the FCC reclassified broadband as a utility, the company has "had to shelve a bunch of stuff because we've got to wait and see."

The new legal environment has also restricted AT&T's ability to develop new services, Quinn said at the event. 

"Since the Open Internet order came out we've had weekly calls with the business units and literally 15 lawyers who are all trying to figure out whether that stuff we've invested in ... would be a violation of the order," he said, according to a Politico report

Product envy? 

Quinn appears to be expressing some bitterness in light of T-Mobile's controversial new Binge On plan, which allows customers to stream unlimited video from some providers on its network without counting it against their data cap. Politico wrote that Quinn said that "there's no way AT&T would have been able to first offer something like T-Mobile's Binge On video streaming plan, since the company couldn't predict how the FCC would respond." 

While those aren't Quinn's exact words, it's especially interesting that he would say something to that effect now that he knows how favorably the FCC did respond. When asked whether Binge On violates net neutrality protection, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler even went as far as to praise the idea.

"It's clear in the Open Internet Order that we said we are pro-competition and pro-innovation," Wheeler said at the FCC's Open Commission meeting last month, according to Ars Technica. "Clearly this meets both of those criteria. It's highly innovative and highly competitive."

Ars Technica's Jon Brodkin pointed out the legal ambiguity with the Binge On service:

"Binge On" exempts 24 services including Netflix, HBO, and Hulu from T-Mobile's high-speed data limits while downgrading quality of video to reduce data usage. The FCC's net neutrality rules don't specifically ban such zero-rating schemes, but they allow for complaints with the commission judging on a case-by-case basis whether a practice "unreasonably interferes" with the ability of consumers to reach content or the ability of content providers to reach consumers.

So it's clear to see why Quinn and others at AT&T might have been reluctant to move forward with a service that straddles the FCC's regulatory lines. Add to that the fact that this is T-Mobile's second product (its Music Freedom plan does the same thing with music streaming) that some claim violates net neutrality rules, as well as Comcast's controversial new Stream TV service, and AT&T finds itself a step behind competitors that were more willing to accept the legal risk.

Perhaps the most poignant of Quinn's comments, however, was when he said the company has to "wait and see." A U.S. Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments on the FCC's Open Internet Order tomorrow, likely kicking off another long legal battle that could ultimately get all those lawyers out of the room during AT&T's brainstorming sessions.

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