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AT&T Slowly Expanding "Toll-Free" Data Trial, but Still No Big-Name Customers

Syntonic Wireless is the latest to join AT&T's effort, launching a sponsored content marketplace for smartphone owners.


AT&T grabbed a lot of attention back in January when it announced plans to offer companies the option to pay for data used by their customers.

Since then? Crickets. Speculation that Amazon might be the first big-name customer for the service for the Fire phone proved to be premature.

However, AT&T has been gradually adding a few smaller names to the pilot program launched earlier this year.

So-called sponsored data is designed to work like a toll-free number did in the landline days. In this case, the sponsor foots the bill for the consumer to use certain services without having the resulting data use count against his or her monthly limit.

Seattle-area startup Syntonic Wireless is announcing on Thursday that it is now a part of the AT&T effort and plans to launch a sponsored content marketplace that will allow smartphone owners to see a range of available content that won’t count against their monthly data cap.

The marketplace, in pre-beta form now, will launch first for Android phones, with iOS and tablet support to follow.

E-commerce and content sites have shown the most interest initially.

“It’s very clear how you can connect the dots of growing revenue without [incurring] significant costs,” Syntonic CEO Gary Greenbaum told Re/code.

Greenbaum said the opportunity is much bigger than that, though. He envisions a world not too far off in which businesses pay for employees to access work sites, while health insurers and schools might pay the tab for certain content.

T-Mobile, meanwhile, has offered a different take on the concept, essentially itself sponsoring customers’ use of various popular music services.

Everyone in the industry is considering some sort of sponsored data effort, Greenbaum said.

“All the operators have things in the works that are variations on the theme,” he said.

Greenbaum shrugged off the big opposition to such services — that they violate the notion of net neutrality and give companies with deeper pockets an easier way to fend off smaller rivals.

“Just because my company can’t afford to have a Super Bowl ad doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have the Super Bowl game,” he said, adding that existing antitrust laws are enough to ensure fair competition.

“I don’t see why the FCC needs to introduce new laws when existing laws are in place to protect consumers,” he said.

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