UK mobile carrier Virgin Media has announced a new data plan that proves the thorny issue of zero-rating isn’t just a problem in the US. The company’s newly-launched 4G mobile services let users access both WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger without using up their data allowance. Like all zero-rating schemes, this seems initially beneficial for consumers, but could also stifle competition — prioritizing Facebook’s apps at the expense of smaller rivals.
Zero-rating is legal in the US and UK, but there are hypothetical restrictions
Although both the US and European Union have laws in place to enforce net neutrality, neither explicitly outlaws zero-rating. In the EU, guidelines enforced by the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC), allow zero-rating schemes to be assessed on a case-by-case basis based on their potential damage to competitiveness in the market. (We’ve reached out to BEREC for comment.) Virgin Media believes its new 4G data plan doesn’t infringe these rules because users can only access WhatsApp and Messenger when they have data left in their monthly plan.
“Neither the EU net neutrality regulations nor the subsequent BEREC guidelines prohibit the zero rating of services,” a spokesperson for Virgin Media told The Financial Times. “This offer does not result in any blocking or throttling of content, and there is no prioritization of WhatsApp or Messenger traffic.” The spokesperson added that Virgin Media is “open to including other messaging platforms in the offer” and that other UK carriers already offer zero-rating schemes.
This is true, but past schemes have been significantly smaller than Virgin’s. FreedomPop, for example, introduced zero-rated WhatsApp access in the UK in September, but has far fewer customers than Virgin Media. (The company does not specific how many exactly, but it’s somewhere in the six figures, compared to Virgin Media’s 3 million mobile subscribers).
BEREC notes that when assessing the legality of zero-rating schemes, it looks at a number of factors including the size of the companies, and customers’ ability to access rival products. The agency hasn’t commented on Virgin Media’s plans, and has already given the green light to number of similar schemes across Europe. However, it’s not clear how much longer this will go on, with mobile carriers in the US as well as the UK apparently keen to test the limits of net neutrality legislation. Virgin Media’s new scheme just the latest example.