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Zero rating: Another way of poisoning net neutrality

A recent study found ISP zero-rating business practices -- offering a service such as DirecTV without charging for the bandwidth -- actually ends up increasing your wireless data bill.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Net neutrality was killed in the US in 2017. One lie Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and their allies used to promote this was that people would benefit by having ISPs make some sites and services' data access free or cheaper.

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This concept is known as zero rating. With a zero-rating plan, you won't be charged for some data counting against your data cap when you use data for a particular service. For example, if you use  AT&T Wireless, you won't get charged for watching DirecTV Now. When you subscribe to Virgin Mobile you're not charged for data used with WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Twitter. 

Sounds good, doesn't it? Think again.

It's a con

First, this "pay for play" plan only works for big content providers. Second, someone still has to pay for that bandwidth so content providers will pass along their higher broadband bills by increasing their fees. Finally, say you're on AT&T Wireless, but you prefer YouTube TV or Sling TV. Well, too bad for you.

I like choosing my own services rather than having my ISP choose for me. I'm funny that way. The ISPs, by the way, know that people tend to pick what appears to be a short-term "free" deal over a long-term good deal. They said as much in their document asking for the end of net neutrality to the FCC in 2016. I guess that's not very surprising in a business world, which always values the next quarter's results looking good rather than solid growth.

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So much for 'free data'

We now know there's another reason to hate zero rating: ISPs end up charging you more.

The Epicenter.works, a European non-profit which studies the effects of technology on people, did a study on zero rating within the  EU's 30 member countries. They found that when a country allowed zero rating, wireless carriers increased wireless data charges compared to those without zero rating. 

As Ernesto Falcon, an Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) legislative counsel, observed: "EU countries that do not have zero rating practices enjoyed a double digit drop in the price of wireless data after a year. In comparison, the countries with prevalent zero rating practices from their wireless carriers consistently saw data prices increase."

Why? Because once an ISP has you, it knows you're not likely to switch. If the ISP owns both the service and your connection, which AT&T does with DirecTV Now, for example, it knows darn well you're not going anywhere.

That's great for ISPs. It cuts down their churn rate, increases their profits, and eliminates their smaller competitors, which can't afford to buy their own content providers. For the rest of us? Higher bills and fewer network service choices.

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