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More AT&T Toll-Free Data Apps Trickle Out

Sarah Thomas

AT&T-sponsored data provider Syntonic Wireless opened its Sponsored Content Store for the carrier on Thursday, offering up more mobile apps and content that the carrier's customers can use without affecting their data plans.

AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) unveiled its plans for toll-free data, in which the sponsoring company pays for data usage stemming from its app rather than the consumer, in early January. The announcement sparked a lot of controversy at the time, with opponents afraid the carrier would create an uneven playing field by giving precedence to those brands that could afford to pay. (See AT&T Unveils Toll-Free, Sponsored Data and AT&T Toll-Free Data: Innovation or Rip-Off?)

AT&T has said it will not prioritize speeds or give undue support to brands that participate. Rather, it's positioning it as a way for brands to better engage with their customers, or for enterprises to connect with their employees. So far, most of the participating companies, like Hershey, appear to be using the service to offset the cost of delivering video adds to consumers.

The program, powered by Amdocs Ltd. (NYSE: DOX) and Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), so far is supported by three sponsored data providers, including ad platforms Aquto and HipCricket Inc. , and startup Syntonic Wireless, which has built a storefront powered by its Connected Services Platform, which couples mobile apps and content with 4G connectivity.

AT&T postpaid customers who are on its HSPA+ or LTE network and have a compatible Android or iOS smartphone, tablet, or laptop will be able to access the content store and download apps they can use toll free. Syntonic isn't naming any participating brands, but notes that the program is still in beta, with a commercial launch planned for August.

While AT&T's toll-free data plan doesn't actually reduce users' bills, the carrier will include usage of the apps on their monthly statements to show them how much data they would've burnt up had it been counted against the cap. The carrier hasn't yet revealed one crucial detail -- what it is charging the content providers per megabyte to be exempt from the cap -- but the set-up of its sponsored data does let it essentially make money twice -- from its customers and the participating brand.

This type of app-based billing model has sprung up across the globe in the past few years, and Heavy Reading expects to see more of it going forward. Despite the controversy around AT&T's implementation, analyst firm Ovum Ltd. named it an "innovative service of the month" in March, noting that the "service introduces a new business model for broadband connectivity for AT&T and paves the way for others to follow suit." (See Carriers Warm Up to Service Innovation.)

"As with any new business models, success depends on how well AT&T educates potential customers about the benefits of using the service," Ovum analyst Sara Kaufman wrote at the time. "The visibility and management features along with the analytics tools should encourage enterprise sponsors to try the offer."

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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User Rank: Light Sabre
7/14/2014 | 11:35:26 AM
Re: Partners?
So which operators, which brands have replicated this model? I expect it to fly in places like Africa and South Asia where consumer affordability is low, but corporates are eager to let the masses try their video infotainment content.
User Rank: Light Sabre
7/11/2014 | 4:10:26 PM
Re: Partners?
Amazon would have been a surprising partner.. especially since its Prime video streaming platform currently *requires* a Wifi connection (and gives an error if it detects a mobile network). 

Toll-free data plans are puzzling to me -- will consumers really keep track of which apps are "toll-free" and which aren't? I doubt it, unless AT&T pops up constant reminders that say, "try this toll-free data!" which will probably annoy users more than provide them with a better experience. 

User Rank: Light Sabre
7/11/2014 | 4:01:09 PM
Sprint and T-mobile are a bit too quiet about toll-free data...
I wish the "unlimited data" plan providers (Sprint and T-Mobile) would take a firmer stand against toll-free data and promote their unlimited data services, for gosh sakes. Instead, it seems they're hedging and saying that they're open to the idea of maybe someday offering a way for toll-free data to exist in their networks -- which spells the doom of unlimited data plans, in my opinion.

I believe T-mobile is already testing out a toll-free data plan with a sub-brand (GoSmart Mobile, anyone heard of it?)... so if there is any market traction for toll-free data, it looks like the Un-Carrier will be ready to jump over to AT&T's toll-free strategy. yay /sarcasm
User Rank: Light Sabre
7/11/2014 | 10:15:07 AM
Re: Partners?
Yes, this will be a way to help AT&T pursuade customers they're getting something free. But, as pointed out, if the apps are of little use to most folks, there's no real bargain here. Eventually, though I'm guessing providers are just going to have to work on free data plans for all anyway.
User Rank: Light Sabre
7/10/2014 | 12:59:05 PM
Re: Partners?
Right? Visit our webstore that sells highly-fractured content I probably wasn't interested in in the first place? This idea only works for AT&T if numerous big name partners sign up, but it appears they aren't interested in paying AT&T an additional toll for the honor -- so far.
User Rank: Light Sabre
7/10/2014 | 12:35:38 PM
Re: Partners?
I still think the idea sets a very dangerous precedent, even though these initial partner selections seem intent on boring us to death? Perhaps more major partners don't want the controversy involved in being a target of the net neutrality brigades.
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