AT&T launches sponsored data scheme; draws government attention

US operator AT&T has launched an initiative that allows businesses to cover the transmission cost of content they provide to consumers. The Sponsored Data service will enable customers to view sponsored content and use apps over AT&T’s HSPA+ and LTE networks without that data usage coming out of their monthly wireless data plan.

Data charges resulting from Sponsored Data services will be billed directly to the sponsoring firm and the content will be delivered over the network at the same rate and quality as non-sponsored content. The operator envisions use cases for potential sponsors including the promotion of movie trailers or games, providing healthcare support to patients, encouraging customers to browse mobile shopping sites and allowing firms with a “bring your own device” policy to cover the cost for employees to use business related services.

“Customers just look for the Sponsored Data icon and they know the data related to that particular application or video is provided as a part of their monthly service,” said Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO at AT&T Mobility.

The operator has also launched a developer portal to allow sponsoring businesses to manage their offerings and measure their impact using an analytics engine.

However, the move has caught the attention of US authorities keen to maintain the ‘openess’ of the internet.

Anna Eshoo, a ranking member of the US Communications and Technology Subcommittee, said in a statement that AT&T’s announcement “puts it in the business of picking winners and losers on the internet, threatening the open internet, competition and consumer choice.

“It’s exactly why net neutrality rules came to exist in the first place and why these rules should apply equally to all forms of broadband internet service,” she added.

Eshoo said that while on the surface the ability to allow consumers to access ‘toll-free’ content appeared to liberate them from the constraint of data caps, she believes there are serious implications for fairness and competition in the mobile marketplace.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the FCC’s chairman Tom Wheeler added that the body was prepared to get involved if it deems that the service becomes anticompetitive or interferes with customers’ browsing experiences.

“Make no mistake, we’re ready to intervene,” Wheeler said, according to the report.


  1. Avatar tim deluca-smith 14/01/2014 @ 10:51 am

    Is it just me or does this smack a little of double-dipping?

    One week we are told that +90% of consumers never hit their data cap; and the next a carrier wants to direct-bill a brand for data so that it’s toll-free for the consumer.

    If brands are taking the cost of data hungry services (streaming etc) will the carrier be reducing the monthly plans in line with new customer usage?

    I won’t even start on the net-neutrality implications.

  2. Avatar Andy Tiller 06/03/2014 @ 6:47 pm

    Well, ok – but this seems to imply that operators should not be allowed to offer any kind of competitive advantage to OTT partners, whether it’s special tariffs, network QoS, access to customer insights etc. I can’t see how forcing operators to become dumb pipes is going to provide any benefit to consumers. Conversely allowing operators to add value to OTT services running over their networks can create a win/win/win for operators, OTT players and consumers alike.

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