from the just-another-revenue-stream dept
AT&T is no stranger to making a mockery of net neutrality rules. It heavily influenced the rules themselves and has several times taken advantage of loopholes to push its favored apps and services. AT&T is now making another attempt to further subvert the concept of net neutrality with its “sponsored data” plan.
AT&T launched a new billing program called Sponsored Data Monday at its developer conference at CES, which shifts mobile data costs from the consumer to the content provider. The idea is to create a two-sided charging model for mobile data, letting app developers and content providers foot the bill for their customers’ data use.
AT&T and other carriers have been hinting at such a subsidized mobile internet for some time, but this is the first time that it’s actually put those ideas into practice. Under the program a content or service provider would pay AT&T to exempt their app, websites or even specific bits of content from consumers’ mobile data plans. Anytime someone consumed such exempted content on the mobile network, AT&T customers wouldn’t see it deducted from their data buckets. Instead, AT&T would subtract that data from a kind of universal data pool bought by the content provider.
By having developers and providers pay the “freight” for data, AT&T will once again be derailing net neutrality. A system like this will obviously favor deeper-pocketed entities, raising the barrier to entry for everyone else. Subscribers, nearly all of whom now have data caps, will be much more likely to use services and apps that don’t cut into their monthly allotment. AT&T will also effectively collect twice on the data, once with the monthly service charge to subscribers (that isn’t reduced if customers don’t hit their caps) and once from any developers/providers who buy in.
AT&T tried to spin this positively, saying that purchasing a data allotment would work as advertising for apps, services or other content providers. “Free” means more subscribers should take advantage of the offerings, resulting in more traffic and business. Its reps were careful to mention that those “sponsoring” data would not receive preferential treatment in terms of having competitors throttled (as it has done in the past), but that obviously won’t be necessary when data-hungry customers are looking for the best deal, data-wise.
AT&T even suggested this new model could be useful for BYOD businesses, allowing charges for data consumed on work-related apps to be covered by that business, rather than the subscriber. For subscribers, this may look like a great deal, but for AT&T, it’s a new revenue stream.
But it’s what’s tacitly admitted by this program — something AT&T avoids addressing — that’s the most interesting. Giving providers and developers the option to pay freight on data exposes these data caps for what they are: an arbitrary limit that exists only as new source of revenue.
Data-heavy apps and services will be the ones most likely to take advantage of AT&T’s sponsored data program. Customers will naturally gravitate towards anything that doesn’t eat into their data caps, especially if it’s something like a streaming audio or video app/site. Any developer that buys in will see an uptick in use and the more data-heavy the offering is, the more likely it is that customers will take advantage of the “free” data.
Because of this, data usage by customers will go up, with the most data-heavy apps and services seeing the biggest increase in usage. According to the company line, caps are in place to prevent data hogs from creating network congestion and degrading service. But this program effectively encourages users to consume more data and use more data-heavy services. As long as AT&T is still making money (via data “sponsors”), then all previous handwringing about network stability no longer matters.
AT&T is likely facing a decline in income for data overages as consumers become more adept at staying under their data caps. The trend should remain unchanged, meaning fewer overages as time goes on. This fixes the income problem but does nothing to address the (false) concern AT&T deployed to justify its implementation of data caps. AT&T wants everyone to use more data, which will increase the amount it can collect from providers and developers. All in all, it’s more evidence that equating data caps with network capacity is nothing more than a lousy spin job attempting to justify the replacement of unlimited data with multiple revenue streams.