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AT&T executive John Donovan announces the sponsored data plan at CES this morning.
AT&T executive John Donovan announces the sponsored data plan at CES this morning.

LAS VEGAS — AT&T will let companies provide “sponsored data” to their users, allowing people to access specific apps and services without the usage counting against their data limits.

The plan, announced at an AT&T event here at CES this morning, is a first for the wireless industry, and AT&T touted its benefits for both companies and consumers.

However, the initiative was immediately criticized by consumer advocates as an example of a wireless carrier giving preferential status to a special class of data, reigniting a longstanding debate in the industry.

“Caps are supposed to help wireless carriers manage congestion,” said Matt Wood, policy director for the Free Press consumer group. “But if getting a big check from another company suddenly makes AT&T’s congestion concerns go away, that shows data caps aren’t necessary in the first place. Caps are merely another way to pad AT&T’s profits.”

AT&T says in an FAQ that sponsored data will be available to people using apps and services from sponsors on LTE and HSPA+ devices, including smartphones, tablets and notebooks using AT&T’s 4G networks.

The company gives this example of a potential usage scenario: “For example, a customer may access an application for healthcare from their insurer. Within the application, there is an educational video. The customer sees the Sponsored Data name, identifying that the video is sponsored. When the customer clicks the icon to play the video, the data usage incurred while watching the video is not applied to the customer’s monthly data allowance.”

Update: Later in the event, Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg talked about the benefits of the plan, including the ability to bring mobile connectivity to more people in scenarios including health care, saying sponsored data will be “clearly impacting people, business and our society.” He added, “That combination is going to be absolutely fabulous.”


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