Is AT&T Violating Net Neutrality?

I got a text on my AT&T cellphone last month that told me that my wireless plan now includes sponsored data. Specifically they told me that I could now stream movies and other content from DirecTV or U-Verse TV without the video counting against my monthly data cap. This has been available to AT&T post-paid customers for a while, but now is apparently available to all customers. What I found most interesting about the message was that it coincided with the official end of net neutrality.

AT&T is not the first cellular company to do this. Verizon tried this a few years ago, although that attempt was largely unsuccessful because they didn’t offer much content that people wanted to watch. T-Mobile does something similar with their Binge-on program, but since most of their data plans are unlimited, customers can watch anything on their phones, not just the Binge-on video.

The sponsored data from AT&T would be a direct violation of net neutrality if it was still in effect and is a textbook example of paid prioritization. By excusing the DirecTV content from cellular data caps they have created an advantage for DirecTV compared to competitors. It doesn’t really matter that AT&T also happens to own DirecTV, and I imagine that AT&T is now shopping this same idea around to other video providers.

So what is wrong with what AT&T is doing? Certainly their many customers that buy both AT&T cellphones and DirecTV will like the plan. Cellular data in the US is still some of the most expensive data in the world and letting customers watch unlimited video from a sponsored video provider is a huge benefit to customers. Most people are careful to not go over monthly data limits, and that means they carefully curtail watching video on cellphones. But customers taking advantage of sponsored video are going to watch video that would likely have exceeded their monthly data cap – it doesn’t take more than a handful of movies to do that.

AT&T has huge market power with almost 140 million cellphones users on their network at the end of last year. Any video provider they sponsor is going to gain a significant advantage over other video providers. AT&T customers that like watching video on their cellphones are likely to pick DirecTV over Comcast or any other video provider.

It’s also going to be extremely tempting for AT&T to give prioritized routing to DirecTV video – what means implementing the Internet fast lane. AT&T is going to want their cellular customers to have a quality experience, and they can do that by making sure that DirecTV video has the best connections throughout their network. They don’t necessarily have to throttle other video to make DirecTV better – they can just make sure that DirectTV video gets the best possible routing.

I know to many people the AT&T plan is going to feel somewhat harmless. After all, they are bundling together their own cellular and video products. But it’s a short step from here for AT&T to start giving priority to content from others who are willing to pay for it. It’s not to hard to imagine them offering the same plan to Netflix, YouTube or Facebook.

If this plan expands beyond AT&T’s own video, we’ll start seeing the negative impacts of paid prioritization:

  • Only the biggest companies like Netflix, Facebook or Google can afford to pay AT&T for the practice. This is going to shut out smaller video providers and start-ups. Already in the short history of the web we’ve seen a big turnover in the popular platforms on the web – gone or greatly diminished are earlier platforms like AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy. But with the boost given by paid prioritization the big companies today will get a step-up to remain as predominant players on the web. Innovation is going to be severely hampered.
  • This is also the beginning of a curated web where many people only see the world through the filter of the predominant web services. We already see that phenomenon a lot today, but when people are funneled to only using the big web services this will grow and magnify.
  • It’s not hard to imagine the next step where we see reduced price data plans that are ‘sponsored’ by somebody like Facebook. Such platforms will likely make it a challenge for customers to step outside their platform. And that will lead to a segmentation and slow death of the web as we know it.

Interestingly, the Tom Wheeler FCC told AT&T that this practice was unacceptable. But through the change of administration AT&T never stopped the practice and is now expanding it. It’s likely that courts are going to stay some or all of the net neutrality order until the various lawsuits on the issue get resolved. But AT&T clearly feels emboldened to move forward with this, probably since they know the current FCC won’t address the issue even if net neutrality stays in effect.

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