AT&T to make “sponsored” 4G data free of charge


AT&T has announced a way for Internet content providers to pay for customers to get the content over 4G without it counting towards their data allowance. It’s being promoted as a sponsorship opportunity, though has raised questions over net neutrality.

The system will be available to anyone accessing 4G through an AT&T data plan on a domestic AT&T wireless network connection, regardless of the device or accessory they use to get online.

The plan is dubbed “Sponsored Data” and works in a similar way to an 800 number. Under the plan, companies can sign up to “sponsor” data from their own services or those of other content providers (though only with the permission of the other provider.) The sponsor will then pick up the tab for the relevant data use, meaning it’s not charged to the Internet user or counted towards their data package.

The sponsor can place limits, for example on the total amount of data they will pay for before the “free” service stops. AT&T hasn’t detailed how the cost for the sponsor will be calculated, but it seems logical they’d get it at a lower per-MB rate than ordinary consumers given the amounts involved.

AT&T is leaving it up to businesses how to take advantage of the system, but suggests possibilities such as a movie studio paying for mobile users to view a trailer, or a medical company paying for health and lifestyle video viewing. One limitation is that it will only work with non-secure web content.

Although wireless Internet isn’t currently subject to any regulations regarding net neutrality, the plan certainly appears to go against the principle. From one perspective the idea makes financial sense: businesses are effectively paying to deliver a message to customers who might otherwise not see it because they choose not to use their data allowance for that particular content.

From an opposing perspective, it means that smaller businesses who can’t afford to pay for the Sponsored Data plan are at a disadvantage in getting their message across over the Internet, and it certainly means that the carrier (AT&T) is treating differing content in a different way.

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