Love Free-Data Streaming? US Government Isn’t So Sure

The Federal Communications Commission wants telecom giants Comcast, T-Mobile and AT&T to explain video streaming that doesn’t count against data caps

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler
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You may love any chance to binge on Netflix on the go, but the U.S. government isn’t so thrilled.

U.S. regulators have asked three top telecom companies to explain offers that let customers stream music and video without penalty against their data limits.

These streaming offers, which let customers binge on video and music from some companies but not all, are a popular perk among consumers trained to keep an close eye on how much data they’re eating up on their phones. But some legal experts question whether this freebie unfairly stacks the deck against some companies.

The Federal Communications Commission has sent letters to AT&T, Comcast and T-Mobile asking them to respond to questions about those offers by Jan. 15, Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the commission, said Thursday at a press conference. He characterized the inquiries as simple information-gathering, not part of an investigation or enforcement action.

The practice skirts a gray area of what’s known as “net neutrality,” the principle that traffic on the internet should be treated equally and that companies shouldn’t be able to prioritize some data over others.

T-Mobile launched a service Binge On last month that allows customers to stream as much video as they like from certain partners like Netflix and ESPN without it counting against their monthly allotments. Comcast’s Stream TV lets cable customers to as much video as they like through its own streaming service but counts the data streamed from others. AT&T kicked off a program called Data Perks in October, which lets customers build up a bank of extra data by completing marketing offers.