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AT&T Joins Growing List of 'Data-Free' Video Streamers

7 Sep, 2016 By: Erik Gruenwedel

AT&T Sept. 7 announced DirecTV and U-verse subscribers can now stream live and on-demand video content without dinging their monthly broadband data plans, a growing industry practice called “zero-rating.”

BY downloading the DirecTV or U-verse app, subs with qualifying pay-TV plans can watch “virtually anything” they could on TV via mobile or broadband connection. That includes 20,000 movies and TV shows on live channels — even local — as well as DVR recorded programs. Recorded content can also be downloaded to watch offline.

“Our customers want to take their TVs with them, and our new DirecTV App allows just that," David Christopher, CMO of AT&T Entertainment Group, said in a statement. "You can get the content you want, when you want it … your living room channels and your recorded content anywhere you go.”

The move comes as AT&T readies DirecTV-branded over-the-top video platforms, including so-called “skinny” channel bundles.

T-Mobile was the first wireless carrier to offer data-free video and audio streaming through its “Binge On” and “Music Freedom” programs, respectively. Verizon followed suit after the launch of its ad-supported Go90 video platform. Sprint has the lowered the price of its data plans, while Comcast — the nation’s largest ISP — has more than tripled subscriber data caps to 1TB from 300GB.

While data-free plans would appear to appease net neutrality concerns, advocates allege the programs favor the biggest ISPs — at the expense of smaller operators.

"Turning the mobile Internet into a carrier-controlled walled garden is ultimately a bad idea for consumers, for all online services (even those included in T-Mobile’s zero-rating today), and for the wireless industry as a whole," John Bergmayer, a lawyer with net neutrality advocate Public Knowledge, said in a statement.

Yet the Federal Communications Commission, in its 2015 landmark net neutrality ruling, suggested sponsored data plans — whereby content owners subsidize some ISP costs — could actually benefit consumers.

Susan Crawford, a Harvard Law School professor, who last year in BackChannel.com penned a criticism of data-free streaming, characterized the practice as anti-competitive, patronizing and counter productive. Crawford said the practice is exactly the opposite of what net neutrality stands for — treating all Internet traffic equally.

“Zero-rating is pernicious; it’s dangerous; it’s malignant. Regulators around the world are watching how the U.S. deals with zero-rating, and we should outlaw it. Immediately. Unless it’s stopped, it’s not going to go away,” Crawford wrote.

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