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AT&T says it supports net neutrality — but it’s staying quiet on whether it could charge more for faster access

  • The wireless giant's pledge stayed mum on whether it might someday charge startups, tech giants and others for faster delivery of their sites and services.
  • The company's chief executive, Randall Stephenson, even suggested that any new regulations should target telecom giants as well as their tech counterparts, potentially including companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter.
  • The Trump administration quashed rules that required internet providers to treat all web traffic equally.
Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T speaking at the New York Economic Club on Nov. 29th, 2017.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T speaking at the New York Economic Club on Nov. 29th, 2017.

AT&T embarked on a major ad blitz on Wednesday to stress its support for net neutrality, promising it would not block websites or degrade speeds based on the content that its customers consume.

But the wireless giant's pledge — appearing in major newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post — stayed mum on whether it might someday charge startups, tech giants and others for faster delivery of their sites and services, though AT&T has avoided such an idea in the past.

And the company's chief executive, Randall Stephenson, even suggested that any new regulations should target telecom giants as well as their tech counterparts, potentially including companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter — an idea likely to draw a sharp rebuke in Silicon Valley.

AT&T's public commitments come roughly one month after the Trump administration quashed rules that required internet providers to treat all web traffic equally. Like its peers in the telecom industry, AT&T has maintained that it supported net neutrality — but always felt that federal regulations adopted under former President Barack Obama were too heavy-handed and crimped investment.

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For the moment, the FCC is finalizing its repeal, while court challenges — led by tech giants and consumer advocates — are beginning to materialize. In the meantime, though, AT&T said Wednesday in its open letter that it is still "committed to an open internet."

As Stephenson defined it: "We don't block websites. We don't censor online content. And we don't throttle, discriminate or degrade network performance based on content. Period."

Absent from the company's fresh pledge, however, was any explicit mention of "paid prioritization" — the idea that an internet service provider might offer or require tech giants and startups alike to pay for faster delivery of their streaming music, movies or other sites and services. Strong supporters of net neutrality long have derided these arrangements as "online fast lanes." And some have feared that telecom giants like AT&T would pursue those deals in the coming months in the wake of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's repeal.

Asked about the omission, a spokesman for AT&T pointed Recode to the company's comments dating back to 2014, when it said it wanted to ban some paid prioritization. Then, the only kinds of fast lanes that AT&T endorsed were those elected by consumers. It never panned out, but its unique proposal at the time might have allowed wireless customers to elect to receive their movies streamed faster than their music. Otherwise, AT&T and the rest of the telecom industry have always said that some paid prioritization is necessary, such as in the context of telemedicine.

Meanwhile, Stephenson also on Wednesday called for Congress to write a new law governing net neutrality, putting an end to the bitter war at the FCC and in the federal court system over the agency's authority to oversee the internet. Already, tech giants in Silicon Valley have filed or pledged to support a number of legal challenges in a bid to restore the agency's net neutrality protections.

But AT&T took aim at some of those very companies, suggesting that any new net neutrality law should govern not only telecom giants, but perhaps tech platforms, too.

"Congressional action is needed to establish an 'Internet Bill of Rights' that applies to all internet companies and guarantees neutrality, transparency, openness, non-discrimination and privacy protection for all internet users," Stephenson wrote.

The AT&T executive did not mention any tech companies by name, but he added: "Legislation would not only ensure consumers' rights are protected, but it would provide consistent rules of the road for all internet companies across all websites, content, devices and applications."

In recent months, conservatives around the country — including the likes of Republican Sen. Ted Cruz on Capitol Hill — have fumed at reports that they see as evidence that Silicon Valley is biased against them. Meanwhile, tech giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter certainly support net neutrality, but oppose any regulation of the content that appears on their sites and services.