Civil rights group tout benefits of zero-rated data for low-income users

Zero-rated mobile data offerings may skirt net neutrality principles, but one civil rights group claims they're an effective way for low-income users to access broadband services.

That's the conclusion of a white paper released this morning by the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC), a national nonprofit group that aims to promote equal opportunity and civil rights in the mass media, telecom and broadband industries. The group assessed the impact of free data plans in five key areas -- the digital divide; consumers who rely on broadband access; mobile broadband business model experimentation; innovation in the mobile ecosystem and consumer empowerment -- and found that "the benefits and impacts of free data are profound and wide-ranging."

Services that don't incur data costs bring more users online, the MMTC said, which not only allows service providers to deliver an improved customer experience but also spur "more vibrant and robust innovation" in the market.

"In an era where it is increasingly important to have access to broadband, millions of people -- primarily low-income and multicultural communities -- rely on their cell phones to go online," MMTC CEO Kim Keenan said in a prepared statement. "Thanks to free data offers, consumers can enjoy streaming and accessing content without it counting against their data plans -- thus freeing them to access other important information relating to employment and healthcare without surpassing their data caps.

"Free data provides much-needed relief to families with limited resources who have to count every penny and would otherwise be forced to miss out on many of the opportunities broadband access affords," Keenan concluded.

But while zero-rated services may be good for consumers -- particularly low-income users -- they've come under fire from net neutrality proponents who say they unfairly provide an advantage to larger companies that can afford to leverage them. Verizon's FreeBee Data, for instance, enables deep-pocketed companies to foot the bill to deliver their content to customers. And a Stanford professor and net neutrality expert last year said T-Mobile's Binge On "harms competition, innovation and free speech" and is likely illegal, partly because it excludes providers whose content doesn't comply with specific technical requirements.

Facebook, too, has drawn flak for its Free Basics offering, which was banned in India earlier this year. The service made headlines again this week when 27 broadcasters in Sweden signed a joint letter claiming the service is a "direct attack on net neutrality."

The FCC voted last year to codify new net neutrality regulations for wireless and wireline networks, and it claims to be monitoring zero-rated data services and evaluating them on a case-by-case basis. The MMTC urged restraint, noting in its white paper that "premature or unnecessary intervention by an entity like the FCC would likely chill further experimentation with offerings such as free data, an outcome that would prove devastating to consumers and contrary to the innovative ethos that has long permeated the U.S. wireless space."

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