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MIT Technology Review

President Trump Might Mess with Your Streaming TV

The new president’s FCC is likely to ignore or overturn Obama’s net neutrality rules.

November 16, 2016

Here’s an offbeat question about the incoming Trump administration: how will it influence the future of streaming video?

We know next to nothing about Donald Trump’s stances on the regulation of the commercial Internet. But he ran his campaign on a broad promise to roll back regulations, so it seems there’s a good chance the Obama administration’s net neutrality rules will be among those on the chopping block. If that happens, we could see new business arrangements, as well as products and services, that would not have been allowed had Hillary Clinton won the presidential election.

The rules in the Open Internet Order, passed last year by the FCC under chairman Tom Wheeler, are meant to promote competition and innovation in the marketplace for Internet services. They ban ISPs from throttling or blocking legal traffic, and from entering business deals in which companies pay more to have their traffic prioritized. They also give the FCC the power to police other practices it deems harmful to consumers or to competition.

But the FCC’s strategy for enacting the Open Internet Order was controversial, and incited backlash from Republicans, who called it government overreach. The commission has changed how it classifies broadband from an “information service” to a “telecommunications service,” and thus claimed authority to regulate ISPs under stricter laws that govern so-called common carriers—service providers that transport goods or people, like airlines, truckers, and phone companies.

Once Republicans gain control of the government they will likely try to reverse this move, says Doug Brake, a telecommunications policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. It could eventually be replaced by some sort of compromise, for example between Trump’s FCC and net neutrality advocates, but it’s too early to say.

One business practice that seems to be hanging in the balance is “zero rating,” which exempts specific content from counting against a user’s monthly data cap. A popular service is T-Mobile’s Binge On plan, which lets users stream ESPN, YouTube, Netflix, and other content. AT&T allows users of DirectTV (which it owns) to stream it over the wireless network without it counting against their cap.

The Open Internet Order did not ban zero rating outright, but said the FCC would examine such services on a case-by-case basis. Last week, the commission sent a letter to AT&T saying that it may be violating net neutrality rules by zero rating its own service, DirectTV. AT&T has until later this month to respond.

It’s not clear whether the FCC would take action between now and Trump’s inauguration. It’s also not clear what the FCC’s letter might mean for another product, called DirectTV Now, which AT&T plans to release next month. The $35 per month plan will let users stream 100 channels. 

Once Trump is sworn in, though, AT&T could be off the hook. Under a typical Republican administration, a product like this would likely be encouraged, says Brake.