The countdown to the funeral for net neutrality has begun, with official services slated for April 23, unless Congress or the courts pull off a miracle. All the ISPs have paid their lip service respects, saying they will carry on the way they always have. But it appears AT&T is starting to celebrate even before the casket is lowered into the ground.
The wireless carrier is expanding its sponsored data program to prepaid customers. The program gives content providers the option of paying to be a sponsor, which in turn means their content would not count toward a user's data cap. Right now, participants in the program include DirecTV, UVerse and FullScreen, the three video services owned by ... surprise ... AT&T.
In a text message to prepaid users, the company said:
“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."
AT&T was one of the many companies trying to allay user fears of fast lanes and throttling as the FCC dismantled net neutrality in December. AT&T exec Bob Quinn even was so bold as to say after the repeal:
“AT&T intends to operate its network the same way AT&T operates its network today: 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."
So to be clear, once a user hits their data cap, they usually get throttled back from 4G LTE speeds to 2G or 3G. However, if a content provider wants to be sponsored, their content will not be subjected to the slower speeds. There is no word on how much AT&T charges "sponsors."
To be fair, AT&T has had its sponsored data program since 2014, and is expanding it to cover a different level of customers. Currently, there are five sponsored data providers listed on the official site. While most of those appear to be marketers having their own client base, the fact that AT&T chose to list its own streaming services as exempt from data caps seems to signal a willingness by the company to expand on its current targets for sponsors.
Also, the timing of the expansion of the program is a bit worrisome, as it signals to potential sponsors that AT&T may be starting to throw caution to the wind in its efforts to channel specific content to its users with net neutrality on its way out.
Obviously, this is only one way for ISPs to take advantage of net neutrality's demise. Others could include dumping costs on the consumer for plans involving specific websites, or even making it harder to get to sites that compete with their sponsors.
Once April 23 rolls around, start watching for more ISPs joyfully kicking dirt on net neutrality's headstone.