Are operators changing tack on zero rating?

iPhone 6s
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EE made the headlines last week when it said it would offer six months of free Apple Music services to customers from Sept. 1, marking the first time that a UK operator has provided Apple’s music streaming service to its customer base.

With offers such as these, one of the immediate questions that springs to mind is whether or not the service is zero rated -- in other words, will they have no impact on monthly mobile data allowances or gradually drain them over time?

EE decided against taking the zero-rated approach with Apple Music, in contrast to Telstra. The Australian operator launched a similar offer to EE last year but said Apple Music streaming would not affect data allowances.

German media has also reported that Telekom Deutschland could be the next operator to follow suit: said the domestic unit of Deutsche Telekom plans to announce a six-month free Apple Music offer at the IFA trade show in Berlin this week. Whether or not the German operator will zero-rate the offer is not clear, but it did recently scrap its previous zero-rated Spotify offer.

Although net neutrality advocates see zero-rating as a form of price discrimination, the appetite of operators for such offers has remained undiminished. But do the recent moves by EE and Telekom, and the calls of open Internet supporters to ban such pricing tactics, indicate that the tide is turning?

Current Analysis has been tracking the zero-rated offers of operators for some time and has watched the trend mushroom into a global phenomenon.

Emma Mohr-McClune, service director, consumer global at the analyst company, said zero-rating is not on the way out, but it is getting smarter.

“When we study the FUPs [fair usage policies] among some of the more recently introduced zero-rated offers, there is a clear move towards more sophisticated, multi-level and usage-based parameters, particularly for video. The challenge for carriers is to keep it all transparent and simple for the end-user to understand,” Mohr-McClune said.

She noted that EE may have opted against zero-rating Apple Music because the offer “is a market-first and a verifiable USP [unique selling point].”

In the case of Telekom’s Spotify package in Germany, “the carrier claimed to be bringing its offer closer in line with EU net neutrality rules,” Mohr-McClune said.

Indeed, operators in the European Union may well have to think more carefully about zero-rated offers in future: the region’s telecoms regulatory body, Berec, has published its final guidelines on the implementation by national regulators of net neutrality rules that also specifically address zero-rating.

While the guidelines do not prohibit commercial practices including zero-rating “per se”, they do provide some limits. For example, zero-rated offers are prohibited “where all applications are blocked (or slowed down) once the data cap is reached except for the zero-rated application(s).”--Anne