The FCC Tuesday said Verizon Wireless has agreed to pay $1.25 million to settle an investigation into whether it had blocked access to certain mobile broadband apps and will now inform customers it has no problem with them.
The open access conditions on the FCC C block spectrum Verizon successfully bid for at auction included allowing customers to use devices and applications of their choosing. "Today's action demonstrates that compliance with FCC obligations is not optional," said the FCC. "The open device and application obligations were core conditions when Verizon purchased the C-block spectrum."
The FCC launched an investigation after reports and a complaint that Verizon had asked that "a major application store operator block Verizon's customers from accessing tethering applications from its online market." (Tethering is using a wireless phone as a modem to obtain Internet access for another device, such as a laptop computer or tablet.)
A year ago, Free Press argued that reports that Verizon Wireless and other carriers got Google to restrict access to free tethering applications in the Android market -- those apps turn smartphones into their own free, mobile Wi-Fi hotspots -- means that Verizon is violating that open access requirement on its spectrum.
Verizon countered that it was Google, not Verizon, which removed the apps. "Verizon does not block applications," the company said at the time of the complaint. "Google manages its own applications store, evaluated the applications in question, determined that they were in violation of it terms of service and removed them."
Under the terms of the settlement, Verizon has committed to letting app store operators know it does not object to tethering applications and has agreed to a training program. Verizon has already modified its service play so that customers with usage-based pricing can tether using any application without paying any extra.
"The FCC sent a strong signal to the market that companies cannot ignore their pro-consumer obligations," said Free Press Policy Director Matt Wood. "Unfortunately, the fact that Verizon worked to block these apps in the first place is a clear indication that wireless providers have a strong incentive to discriminate against certain content and applications, an incentive that continues to threaten online freedom and innovation. While we are pleased that the FCC finally acted on our long-standing complaint, and did so before taking action on Verizon's pending spectrum acquisitions, we remain concerned that consumers of other carriers lack the same basic protections that Verizon's customers have under the law."
"I was deeply concerned when I heard of allegations that Verizon Wireless had requested that a major application store operator block Verizon's customers from accessing tethering applications in the operator's online market," said FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. "One of the reasons the Commission chose, in December 2010, to apply less stringent Open Internet rules to mobile wireless services was its expectation that Verizon Wireless's compliance with the openness conditions, which we imposed on carriers that operate on upper 700 MHz C Block spectrum, would promote greater consumer access to mobile applications and services. Today's consent decree serves as a stark reminder that the Commission cannot take compliance with Open Internet rules for granted. "