AT&T's sponsored data plan could have enterprise appeal, but some argue it is anti-competitive

Last week, AT&T Inc. announced its sponsored data program, which allows users to "browse websites, stream video and enjoy apps … without impacting [their] monthly data allowance" by permitting companies sponsoring data content to pick up the tab on customers' charges.

"Data charges resulting from eligible uses will be billed directly to the sponsoring company," says a Jan. 6 press release from AT&T. "And the usage will appear on their monthly invoice as sponsored data."

The wireless carrier is trying to drum up sponsors for the program, marketing it as a way to promote movie trailers, games or e-commerce through the appeal of "free" data. But there is an interesting application to the enterprise as well. AT&T says businesses with bring your own device policies could pay for the data employees use for specific business-related apps and services, while letting employees pay for all other data services.

What's more, United Health Group and Kony Solutions are among the first companies that have signed on to the plan, reports AdWeek--two companies with clear enterprise services and the ability to apply sponsored data to business-related apps, should they so desire.

However, AT&T's forthcoming program is already meeting some resistance. Policy groups say it will give an unfair advantage to businesses with deeper pockets in the increasingly competitive mobile marketing space.

"AT&T's plan erects a massive barrier in front of anyone hoping to be the next big thing online," Michael Weinberg, acting co-president of Public Knowledge told AdWeek.

These concerns have garnered the attention of the Federal Communications Commission as well. While speaking at an event in Silicon Valley, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the agency would watch AT&T's new plan closely. Wheeler said it is possible AT&T's plan could promote competition and efficiency and should not be prohibited at the offset; however, sponsored data could also create a disparity in terms of access, reports Wireless Week.

Wheeler reaffirmed the FCC's stance on net neutrality, saying the agency's role is "to assure that open access not only means getting on the network, but getting to the network," according to the publication.

In a follow up Wireless Week report, Jim Cicconi, AT&T's senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs, said the program is voluntary and non-exclusive.

"It is an offering by that company, not by AT&T. We simply enable it. The bottom line is that this can save money for our customers. We see no reason why this is not a good thing," Cicconi told Wireless Week. He added that AT&T is confident the plan complies with FCC net neutrality rules.

For more:
- read the AT&T press release
- read the AdWeek article
- read this article and this article from Wireless Week 

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