Ajit Pai at conservative conference

‘Sponsored data’ program expanded by AT&T following net neutrality repeal

Image credit: Reuters/Joshua Roberts

Following the rollback of Obama-era net neutrality regulations, AT&T, the world’s largest telecommunications company, has announced that it will be offering a premium “sponsored data” program.

The net neutrality regulations enshrined in law the principle that all web content should be treated equally by internet service providers (ISPs). This rendered it illegal to speed up, slow down or completely block content produced by an ISP’s competitors.

Ajit Pai, who was appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by President Donald Trump in January 2017, spent the rest of the year dismantling these regulations.

Pai faced intense criticism from Democrats, Republicans, tech companies and advocacy groups, particularly given his former role as a lawyer for Verizon – one of the largest ISPs in the US – and his refusal to pause and investigate evidence of mass fraud during its public consultation phase. Since the FCC voted 3-2 to repeal net neutrality regulations in December 2017, a number of states have taken steps to introduce their own net neutrality measures, and 23 attorneys-general have filed lawsuits against the regulator.

Last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Maryland, the National Rifle Association presented Pai with a Kentucky long gun and the “Charlton Heston Courage Under Fire Award” for seeing through the repeal in the face of heated criticism.

Just one day after the FCC formally published the repeal in the Federal Register, AT&T announced its plans to offer a premium data package to prepaid wireless customers, expanding the programme from a considerably smaller customer base. Following the publishing in the Federal Register, there will be two months of continued protection before the regulations are lifted on April 23, and AT&T may begin to offer this service.

In a text to customers, AT&T informed them that: “Now your plan includes sponsored data. This means, for example, that customers who have DirecTV or U-verse TV can now stream movies and shows […] without it counting against their plan data.”

This will offer content providers the option to “sponsor” their data such that it does not count against a customer’s data cap. So far, DirecTV, U-verse and Fullscreen – all of which are owned by AT&T – have been signed up to the policy.

Most ISPs will slow down network speeds from 4G to 2G or 3G once a user reaches their data cap. Sponsored content will likely continue to be accessed via 4G.

In November 2017, ahead of the vote on net neutrality repeal, AT&T joined other ISPs in offering reassurance that they would continue to operate in the same way as before. The company released a statement stating that it would continue to operate in the same way: “in an open and transparent manner”.

“We will not block websites, we will not throttle or degrade internet traffic based on content, and we will not unfairly discriminate in our treatment of internet traffic,” said Bob Quinn, senior executive VP of external and legislative affairs at AT&T.

In June 2015, AT&T was slapped with a $100m fine by the FCC for throttling broadband speeds for millions of customers on unlimited data plans without their knowledge.

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