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Evolving Network Business Models

AT&T got critics' keyboards activated by announcing plans for a Sponsored Data service, enabling websites to pay for their end-users data consumption. The service has been characterized as a type of toll-free or "1-800″ style service for mobile data.

Does this contravene network neutrality principles? AT&T says the traffic from the sponsoring sites will be treated the same as other traffic on the network. A US public interest group, Public Knowledge, claims this is precisely what a net neutrality violation looks like.

I don't think it is quite so clear. Via Twitter, I asked for careful thought on the implications of the evolution of internet transport business models:

Telecom Policy Students: Does AT&T's "Sponsored Data" inhibit or encourage development of next-gen bandwidth intensive applications? Discuss

AT&T has provided these examples of enabled capabilities in its press release:

  • Encouraging customers to try a new smartphone or tablet app.
  • Promoting movie trailers or games.
  • Providing patient healthcare support via wellness videos.
  • Encouraging customers to browse mobile shopping sites.
  • Allowing businesses with 'Bring Your Own Device' policies to pay for the data employees use for specific business-related apps and services.
  • Enhancing customer loyalty programs by providing sponsored data access to products and services.

AT&T has indicated that among its first two clients are Aquto, which has an app that rewards users with extra data if they watch ads or download specific apps, and health insurance company UnitedHealth Group.

Is it possible that Aquto, or app providers like them, might enable data access to customers who cannot afford a data plan?

Could "sponsored data" facilitate the development of data-intensive health telemetry applications, paid for by the healthcare insurer or provider, instead of burdening the patient with the costs? According to Techcrunch, the intent is to provide low-income users access to health information videos.

Could such a "toll-free" data model enable more equitable treatment of data use by Video Relay Service consumers?

Should regulators intervene or allow the marketplace to work to enable evolution of network business models?

By Mark Goldberg, Telecommunications Consultant

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