(Adds T-Mobile reaction)
By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON, Dec 17 (Reuters) - The Federal Communications Commission said on Thursday it asked major Internet providers to answer questions on policies aimed at offering consumers free data by using preferred services and whether they violate the government's net neutrality rules.
The FCC unveiled rules earlier this year requiring broadband providers to treat all data equally, rather than giving or selling access to a so-called Web "fast lane."
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told reporters that commission staff sent letters on Wednesday to AT&T Inc, Comcast Corp and T-Mobile Inc "to come in and have a discussion with us about some of the innovative things that they are doing."
The letters, which the FCC made public on Thursday, seek meetings with "relevant technical and business personnel" by Jan. 15.
"As you may be aware, concerns have been expressed about these programs, for example, some have argued that sponsored data unfairly advantages incumbent content providers," the letter to AT&T said. "We want to ensure that we have all the facts to understand how these services relate to the commission's goal of maintaining a free and open Internet while incentivizing innovation and investment from all sources."
T-Mobile has introduced a new "Binge On" policy that does not count some digital video services against data limits.
Comcast is rolling out its own live streaming TV service in six states called "Stream TV" that would not count usage against data caps if using Comcast services.
AT&T has "sponsored data plan" programs that allow content providers to subsidize users' wireless data. Users can browse or stream some content from sponsors that does not count against data allowances.
AT&T said the company is "reviewing the letter and will respond as appropriate. We remain committed to innovation without permission [from regulators] and hope the FCC is too."
A Comcast spokeswoman said the company looks forward to participating in the FCC's fact-gathering process.
"Our Stream TV service does not go over the public Internet. It is a cable service that only works in the customer's home," the company said.
T Mobile said its program does not violate open Internet rules. "This program provides both great customer choice and industry innovation that encourages competition and we believe it is absolutely in line with net neutrality rules," the company said.
Wheeler said the commission wants to welcome innovation in its open Internet order. He said the commission wants to "keep aware" of what is going on.
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai told reporters the letters are likely to lead to an investigation. The FCC should not "haul in companies left and right" to "justify their business plans," he said. He called it a "fishing expedition."
The FCC plans to invite others including other commercial interests and public-interest groups to discuss the issue.
On Dec. 4, a U.S. appeals court heard arguments over the legality of the net neutrality rules, in a case that may ultimately determine how consumers obtain access to content on the Internet. (Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Matthew Lewis)