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AT&T catches heat for HBO Max data cap exemption

A set of Democratic US senators is applying pressure on AT&T's decision to exempt data for its new subscription VoD service, HBO Max, from customer data caps, arguing that the policy runs contrary to the company's stated support of a "free and open Internet."

In a letter to AT&T chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson, the senators – Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) – criticized the company's "sponsored data" policy for HBO Max, arguing that the practice allows "one arm of your company to 'pay' another arm of your company for preferential treatment attempts to mask its true impact."

The senators also argue that AT&T's zero-rating policy on HBO Max could run afoul of net neutrality principles, despite that fact that the FCC, under the Trump administration, rolled back those rules in 2017. AT&T, they claimed, should avoid heading down that slippery slope even without codified rules governing its data policies.

"The Trump FCC may have gutted critical net neutrality protections, but AT&T nonetheless has a responsibility to avoid any policies or practices that harm consumers and stifle competition," they wrote.

They urged AT&T to issue a response to the HBO Max data policy by June 25.

In a statement to Light Reading, AT&T, which launched HBO Max last month as a service born out of its acquisition of Time Warner in 2018, said the policy saves consumers money. AT&T also said that the terms of its sponsored data program applies to HBO Max just as it would to any other partner.

"Our wireless subscribers can stream HBO Max video without incurring data charges, which will save money for millions of consumers," AT&T said. "This is based on a Sponsored Data arrangement and is a program we offer on the same terms to any entities who wish to sponsor data for their customers. This is similar to arrangements some of our competitors have."

Current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who was at the helm when the old net neutrality rules were rolled back, believes that zero-rating policies can be beneficial to consumers. When the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau closed its investigation into wireless carrier free-data offerings in 2017, he stated: "These free-data plans have proven to be popular among consumers, particularly low-income Americans, and have enhanced competition in the wireless marketplace."

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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