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AT&T's Sponsored Data rises again for HBO Max

AT&T's customers can watch HBO Max all they want without worrying about chewing through their smartphone data plans. That's because the company is applying its Sponsored Data program to the service, thus eliminating customers' data-usage fees while they use the offering.

The Verge reported that AT&T put its new HBO Max streaming video service into its own Sponsored Data program, which the operator launched in 2014. The publication noted the move will exempt any data generated by the HBO Max app from AT&T's metered data caps and the "soft" data caps on its unlimited plans. Like most carriers, AT&T may reduce customers' data speeds on its unlimited data plans after they consume a specific amount of data in a monthly billing cycle.

AT&T's Sponsored Data program made a splash when the operator launched it six years ago, primarily due to the net neutrality issues it raised. Those concerns expanded after Verizon launched its own version of the program, dubbed FreeBee, two years later. However, under Trump's administration the FCC abandoned its net neutrality guidelines, a development that critics bemoaned but proponents argued helped network operators better manage Internet traffic spikes amid COVID-19 lockdown orders.

Regardless, there has been little interest in wireless operators' sponsored, toll-free data plans. For example, AT&T reportedly counted just 10 Sponsored Data customers in 2015, and three (all owned by AT&T) in 2018.

That's likely because AT&T, Verizon and much of the rest of the global wireless industry has been slowly transitioning customers from metered data plans to unlimited data plans – thus essentially removing the main reason for a company like Netflix to provide its own "sponsored" data. (Roughly half of AT&T's customers subscribe to an unlimited data plan, and the operator offers HBO Max for free to customers on its most expensive unlimited data plan.)

However, it appears AT&T's HBO Max launch is important enough for the operator to put the service into its Sponsored Data program. Indeed, AT&T has bet much of its video streaming future on HBO Max, a service that collects and unifies the content AT&T purchased from Time Warner and positions the operator as a direct competitor of Netflix, Disney+ and others.

And though AT&T hasn't released any official HBO Max customer statistics yet, the service's app store rankings are notably better than those of Quibi, another recently-launched mobile streaming video service. According to data from app-tracking company Sensor Tower, HBO Max on Tuesday ranked No. 2 among free apps in the Google Play store, and No. 34 in the free apps section of the iOS store. In comparison, Netflix ranked No. 18 in the iOS store and No. 35 in the iOS store.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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