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AT&T Pushes Ahead on Toll-Free Data Plans in Wake of Net Neutrality

What net neutrality? Wireless providers say toll-free data plans don't hurt anyone.

Asa Mathat

AT&T continues to move forward with its trial of toll-free, or sponsored, data, despite concerns from the government.


Sponsored data plans allow businesses to pick up the bill for consumers who use certain apps or services, and it’s still unclear whether that might run afoul of new net neutrality rules.

As he’s indicated previously, AT&T mobile and enterprise CEO Ralph de la Vega characterized the effort as a billing method and not a speed issue, which could be interpreted as a violation of neutrality. He said his initial belief is that the net neutrality policies passed by the FCC last week won’t impact the company’s plans.

“It never was an issue of net neutrality,” he said. “I’m very pleased it looks like that will not be impacted.”

The new net neutrality rules are designed to prevent broadband providers from blocking, slowing or otherwise discriminating against rivals’ Internet traffic, which includes a ban on paid, priority fast lanes. They apply to wireless networks for the first time.

The agency doesn’t exactly bar wireless companies from offering sponsored data plans or exempting some types of applications from data caps in the new rules. But it reserves the right to look at whether such plans violate the rules if it receives complaints.

AT&T announced its plans for sponsored data a year ago, but has moved forward cautiously.

“It’s still in the nascent stages,” de la Vega said in an interview at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. “We’ll continue to make it available. … We’re waiting to see if the market pull is there, rather than pushing it.”

De la Vega said that AT&T is letting customers ask for the service rather than pushing it hard. That said, he said that testing shows consumers engage more with advertisements when they know they won’t be charged for the data that such use generates.

As for the broader net neutrality rules, de la Vega said he has no problem with the principles being enforced, but reiterated AT&T’s disappointment that the FCC is using its Title II authority to regulate the Internet. Title II was originally written to regulate old copper phone lines, which the government considered a necessary utility. Verizon has also opposed the use of Title II, which the companies say they fear could be used for over-broad regulation down the road.

“They are using a 1930s law to regulate the Internet of the 21st Century,” he said, adding that he was also disappointed to see mobile and wired networks treated similarly despite the fact that mobile airwaves are a far more finite resource. “We clearly think there are other choices that could have been wiser.”

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