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AT&T ‘sponsored data’ plan raises net neutrality concerns

08 Jan 2014
A pair of mobile phone masts stand proudly against the backdrop of a blue sky

US mobile phone operator AT&T has announced a plan to allow companies to ‘sponsor’ data on its network, in a move that has already led to concerns over net neutrality.

AT&T said it would allow companies to cover the cost of data use to download particular content onto a customer’s device, in order to remove any concerns about how much data using a service or accessing some content would require.

The company cited examples such as movie trailers, healthcare support, online shopping and apps to download.

AT&T Mobility chief executive Ralph de la Vega, said the company was confident both businesses and its customers would benefit from the offering.

“Customers love mobile content. Whether it’s shopping, banking, entertainment or personal wellness, mobile content is increasingly available for customers almost anywhere and anytime,” he said.

“And that’s what makes this a win-win for customers and businesses – 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.”

However, the plan has raised concerns that the firm is posing a new threat to net neutrality by allowing the biggest firms to dominate the market by being able to out price smaller companies.

This concern was raised in a blog post by Josh Levy of Free Press, an online activist organisation that supports the notion of a free and open internet. He argued that many future companies would suffer as a result.

“Content and app providers – including nonprofits and small businesses – that can’t pay this new toll will be left behind. They may never get off the ground in the first place if they can’t afford AT&T’s sponsor fees. This is not how the internet is supposed to work,” he said.

“Indeed, over the last two decades the open internet – on wired and wireless connections – has provided an open playing field for thousands of upstarts to challenge the incumbents. The open internet has enabled Amazon, Etsy, Google, Netflix and so many other iconic companies to flourish."

While the move is currently being touted for the US, other carriers in markets such as the UK could be affected, especially as operators looks to claw back lost revenues to avoid becoming nothing more than a ‘dumb pipe’ for data that serves apps and services on devices, where most money is now spent.

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Dan Worth

Dan Worth is the news editor for V3 having first joined the site as a reporter in November 2009. He specialises in a raft of areas including fixed and mobile telecoms, data protection, social media and government IT. Before joining V3 Dan covered communications technology, data handling and resilience in the emergency services sector on the BAPCO Journal

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