AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, speaking at the Sanford Bernstein Strategic Decisions conference, teased a possible solution for customers who feel beleaguered by tiered data, and who have been avoiding data-heavy services due to plan limitations.

Stephenson suggested that, as part of new "toll free" data plans, certain data-hungry services' traffic would be excluded from users' monthly data allotment, meaning that services like, for example, Netflix, could be used without eating up your entire data plan.

According to FierceWireless, Stephenson indicated that content providers have been suggesting this approach prior to today's talk:

"I think you'd be stunned if we weren't getting those phone calls. We are getting those phone calls," he said. "The content guys are asking for it."

Officials from Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile have individually indicated an interest in toll-free data plans, but haven't outwardly committed to the idea as yet.

Stephenson indicated that these plans, which would be fueled by content providers' willingness to pay for traffic, could be available within the next 12 months.

While few details surrounding AT&T's toll-free plans are currently available, we'll be here to update you with any new information that emerges. To read more (and for a link to the webcast), just hit the source link below.

Source: FierceWireless Via CNET

Liam Spradlin
Liam loves Android, design, user experience, and travel. He doesn't love ill-proportioned letter forms, advertisements made entirely of stock photography, and writing biographical snippets.

  • BlackGod

    Depending on which services are "toll-free" this could make tiered data plans slightly more attractive to the consumers.

    • http://twitter.com/JoeMo7384 Joel Monarrez

      I would be happy if Netflix, amazon video, and youtube were Toll-free, then I can actually start watching movies on my device when I am on the train. 

      • http://gamingblather.com/ Drak

        "Free" is a word that means something different to AT&T than what it does to us. What he means is that YOU won't have to pay AT&T directly for it.

        "which would be fueled by content providers' willingness to pay for traffic"

        They in turn will expect content providers like Netflix, Amazon, etc to pay for it. Those companies will then charge you more. So no, it's not really free. Just a different way to make their billions.

    • ASdanz

      TANSTAAFL. You're going to pay for it one way or another. If the content providers are offering to  subsidize the bandwidth, you can bet they have a plan to recoup those costs, probably by addind a new higher cost premium tier to their service.

  • ArtnerC

    Sounds like a massive FLIPPITY FUCK YOU to Net neutrality. Eroding the most important principles of the most important construct in society is a great way to make progress. Wonder how much it costs to hire a politician nowadays, I hear it's pretty cheap.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Artem Russakovskii

      I'm not viewing it that way. The difference here is who foots the bill - if Netflix is heavy on content and they want to pay for pushing all those bits to my device, let them. It's not like suddenly the Netflix traffic would more expensive to access for us, consumers, so Net Neutrality doesn't apply.

      Now, if carriers start to charge a "premium content" fee, then that'll be a whole other story. But if they just let companies like Netflix pay for my bandwidth for free, I'm fine with that.

      • Andrewd86

        But... these companies aren't going to be OK with shaving profits off the bottom line to pay for this. These costs will get shifted to the customer. They will keep the same profit margin.

        • http://codytoombs.wordpress.com/ Cody Toombs

          Wal-Mart was perfectly happy with lower prices on products.  While it may mean less profit on a single sale, it also means more customers/users in the long run.  If Netflix offers this and Hulu doesn't, and you're only going to use one of them, who are you going to give money to?  It's a great advertising ploy to promise that you can watch tv and movies on your phone without worrying about overages.

        • wildkarrde21

          Yeah, like somebody mentioned above, I'm wondering if the content providers will start introducing "premium" tiers in order to pay for free streaming on mobile devices. Which I'm not completely opposed to if the price hike is reasonable.

      • jaymonster

        I'm sorry, ArtnerC is quite right.  While some content providers (ie Netflix) may be "willing" to pay for it unlike on the net in general, that doesn't make it any less of a strike against net neutrality.  Consumers pay for access to the data, Providers pay to put their data on the Internet, and these bastards now want to double charge again for it.  

        Only, instead of the carriers being the one to sell the "premium" service, instead you will start winding up with things like "Netflix Plus" which "for only another $2 a month give you unlimited free streaming to your mobile device"  So, while may "data plan" may remain, $30, but now I am paying an addtional $2 here, $1 there, and $4.99 some place else to actually be able to use it as I want.  No, the carrier may not be charging an extra $10 a month or more for the "premium" but we will wind up paying it anyway.

        And then, what if at&t (for example) wants more than VZW for the bits, and can't work out a deal with a content provider... or worse, they start making "exclusive deals"... then we are going to wind up with a situation where you can get content on one provider and not another?  

        This is a bad precedent.  One that was able to be squashed on the wired internet, and needs to be squashed here, before the "cable effect" takes hold, and this just becomes the "defacto standard" of how we can get content.

        • http://www.androidpolice.com/ David Ruddock

          This isn't a net neutrality issue in any technical sense - none whatsoever. The carrier is not prioritizing, blocking, throttling, or otherwise physically impeding your access to specific content. I get what you're saying, but it's apocalyptic and, frankly, reactionary.

          If Netflix decides it wants you to pay extra for streaming on your phone, that's Netflix's choice - it has little to do with AT&T at that point, only in the sense that they're financially incentivizing this for Netflix. Spotify already does this. Hell, Amazon requires you to buy a separate piece of hardware to stream instant video on a mobile device.

          I think the more likely scenario is you'll see these "value-added" bonuses on carriers as incentives to subscribe, while services like Netflix, Amazon, and Spotify will start to specifically monetize and tier mobile subscriptions / access. Carriers will just be forced to compete for your business on a new level. We're moving to a service-oriented world on the mobile web, and honestly, I don't see a problem with it.

          This "it's the 1990's all over again" garbage that keeps getting spewed is so hilariously entitlement-minded. This has nothing to do with the "open internet" or the right to access information - it has to do with people doing what they always do: bitching about the prospect of paying more money for something they want.

          Do you need Netflix, Hulu, or Spotify on your phone for it to be "useful"? Didn't think so. Call me when AT&T starts redirecting you from Wikipedia to Bing, then we'll talk about "net neutrality."

          • ArtnerC

            Sorry, but any assertion that this doesn't, at it's core, have strong net neutrality implications is simply incorrect. Additionally, it raises significant antitrust possibilities.

            On one side, carriers are saying that they won't limit you to certain kinds of data so long as someone pays for it. Where if you can't pay for it, you are stuck with your service suffering the limitations of an ever-shrinking data cap (shrinking in the "data inflation" sense spurred by 4g and ever increasing smartphone use). How anyone could NOT see this as prioritizing and discriminating is beyond me.

            Net Neutrality, as a principle is not limited to a specific set of technical rules. It is an overall philosophy of keeping the internet non-discriminatory for the good of itself and society  (and even the economy). It is very much akin in type and importance to the idea of "freedom of speech" unlike anything else in history. To ignore the significance of this problem because it initially wouldn't be the consumer who pays for it or because "they have the right too" (give me a freaking break) is wholly ignorant of the greater issues at stake and the slippery slope this starts down.

            One of the big problems with SOPA/PIPA was the idea that websites would have to hire staff to spend time reviewing content to ensure that it wouldn't infringe. Now, huge companies like Google CAN foot this bill if they need to... it is a small drop in the bucket for them even if they would rather not pay it. The fundamental problem was that it wasn't an issue for large companies, but for the small sites who wouldn't be able to afford such high overheads, thus creating a huge barrier to entry.

            Now consider that I am a start-up that wants to create a service that competes with Netflix or Google Maps Navigation.  Because Netflix and Google have paid carriers to give their data a free ride I am immediately at a significant disadvantage. Suppose I do release my service and it has some success, but I haven't been able to strike a deal with the carriers for some reason, giving my competitors enough time to rip my idea off. Now, not only does it provide less value to use my service, but customers have a significant incentive NOT to switch. And when customers are locked in tighter and competition is weak or non-existent, then price-elasticity of demand decreases and prices increase for consumers.

            This whole idea is wrong on quite a few levels. It is only difficult (but not impossible) to see if you ignore all the changes leading up to it. They make massive steps to take things away from you so they can add more back but now, charge for them. People are so happy to get things back, that they ignore the fact that they used to get them without being gouged.

          • CORYK333

            Started off fine, then became a pretentious douche towards the end. I hear ya, & actually agree with most of your points, just could have worded it a bit different.

          • http://codytoombs.wordpress.com/ Cody Toombs

            @ArtnerC:disqus Throwing around the term Net Neutrality at this subject is like throwing around the term Socialism when talking about Obama's healthcare system, it's hyperbolic and by necessity it redefines the meaning to fit your argument. It's like saying a Ferrari Testerosa is a pickup truck: four wheels, mediocre gas mileage, only good seating for the driver and passenger, people often want to hang out with you because of your vehicle... But, no matter how many common traits you can write on paper, that sweet piece of ride is does not have a flatbed.
            As I said in another comment, if this happens, it would be _adjacent_ to Net Neutrality because it is giving a behaviorally driven reason to favor one service over another and it would possibly place a cost barrier on heavy use of some services. You know, just like an auto mechanic giving discounts on oil changes would encourage you to go to them. On the other hand, basing an argument on implications and possibilities would mean that stores offering 2-for-1 specials or exclusive rights to selling certain products should also be called Antitrust.

            You're not wrong about most of your argument, this will lead to a higher cost of entry for small or minimally funded companies. You are wrong that this is violating the premise of Net Neutrality. You're arguing that it is a Net Neutrality issue based purely on discrimination, but who is doing the discriminating? AT&T (in this case) isn't discriminating as long as they let every company pay for consumer data. It's not price/class discrimination as long as the cost is based on usage (a gig of data should cost the same for netflix as it does for break.com and it should remain a flat rate regardless of scale). The only party left who can be discriminating is the consumer... Putting the 'Free Market Economy' argument aside, this would just become another cost of business.  In your hypothetical example of starting up a video site to compete with Netflix, you already have to pay a higher price for high-speed and high-volume bandwidth to even serve data to the wired internet, why is that not discrimination?

            Without real details of what this whole thing looks like, we are just making assertions and guesses about how it would work.  Until more is disclosed, you can't start throwing stones. You just don't know yet if this will happen, or even if it does happen that it's screwing the little guy.  Even if it is screwing the little guy, it doesn't mean it's a Net Neutrality issue, it just means it's unfair. It's reasonable to include Net Neutrality in the bucket of things that can possibly be wrong about this, but to base an entire argument on it and insist that it's absolutely happening, it just makes you look like a fanatic.

          • ArtnerC

            @CodyToombs:disqus First of all, my use of Net Neutrality is extremely close if not exactly fitting the description of it in the second result of the search you condescendingly posted earlier:   http://www.savetheinternet.com/net-neutrality-101 
            To compare it to the use of the word socialism is insane. When people use the word socialism in a derogatory manner it is under the assumption that it is a 100% evil and wrong. It also is in direct opposition the the facts shown by evidence of the presidents policies. Entirely political and wrong in more than one respect.
            This article outlines a system where carriers will count your data towards a cap or not, based on a payment from a third party. If that isn't discrimination, then I'm not the one redefining the meanings of words. And Net Neutrality DOES require the non-discrimination of data, more so to specific origins and only slightly less to specific traffic types.

            In any industry there are barriers to entry. One sign of a healthy market is when those barriers are low. The fact that the cost to enter as a competitor to Netflix would be extremely high without this system makes increasing those costs even more destructive.

            There are some things you can't make judgments on until you get more information. This is not one of those cases. Unless it is implemented in a way that is contradictory to how this article describes it, it is wrong. ex: If high traffic providers like Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube pay carriers to provide all streaming video without restriction (not just their own services), the potential economic damage is reduced. The chances this or a similarly helpful policy will happen are infinitesimally small.

            Also, I didn't base my entire argument on Net neutrality. You even seem to specifically acknowledge multiple parts, before proceeding to ignore it and call it fanatical. The entire second half of my post is specifically an economic argument discussing barriers to entry. While the economic argument supports the Net Neutrality argument, they are in fact, separate arguments.

            There should be no doubt that carriers have zero regard for net neutrality or really anything more than maximizing profits regardless of the consequences for their customers. They have provided ample evidence to reasonably reach this conclusion. The system proposed in this article doesn't require a stretch of the imagination to see as highly likely disagreeing with Net neutrality principles, if not outright violating them. I mentioned the slippery slope argument for a reason: This specific move wont kill millions of people and make the world explode, but it does make possible and highly likely a further erosion of the guiding principles of the internet in addition to at the very least in no way helping keep the internet open.

            All that said, I have a limit to how much I will argue in comments and have pretty much reached it. It would be a mistake to confuse passion for fanaticism. Especially because the strength of an argument should lie in the facts and validity of the argument itself and not some ad hominem distraction. Finally, I appreciate the (almost entirely) civil discussion and wish it weren't such a rare phenomenon to find on the web.

      • Juvenall

        As the founder of this, a popular Android website, I'm highly disappointed to find you so open, or worse, blind to one of the very ideas that net neutrality supporters are trying to combat. It's never been an issue of who pays for it, but rather, prioritizing traffic and information based on who has the bigger wallet. 

        This is something website operators should be up in arms about. In terms of AndroidPolice.com, you're basically saying it's OK if Apple pays AT&T so iOS focused sites are both delivered faster and at a lower cost to consumers than content focused on Android. Now, instead of an equal choice, users can pay the carrier to view Android Police and waste their bandwidth downloading the various adds, heavy javascript libraries, and un mobile optimized images to read about Android, or at absolutely no cost to them, jump on an Apple fan site. Who do you think wins in this situation? Not the user and most certainly not you AndroidPolice.com. 

        I'd strongly advise you to look into the issue in more depth before you're "fine" with something.  

      • Asphyx

        yes Artem you make a good point...But one you start down that path it's only a matter of time before Net Neutrality goes away with it.

        By letting Netflix pay for free bandwidth access it puts others at a disadvantage and the law suits will start flying.

        It may however be a good thing for users in the long run. If that is what happens it will only push the govt to remove the restrictions on everypone which might lead to a true net neutrality enforcement.

  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.the.otaku Scott Piercy

    I find the entire development laughable and disturbing simultaneously. It's bad enough that we have faster networks, faster devices, and significantly more content now. It's all just guaranteeing you hit a data cap all the quicker. The fastest network you cannot use is as useless as none at all. 

    The bulk of internet tier services in the U.S. are provided by companies once solely tied to the voice service infrastructure (and thus state and federal control of them as utility services for the public good). These sorts of developments designed to weaken net neutrality are ends runs to further establish a more favorable status-quo before congress wakes up. Assuming of course that congress stops being fed cash payola for their apathy.

  • matteus

    So netflix fees will rise up and customers will pay more. ATT has no right to decide what content is free for me to download. What utter BS. Its not my fault they flooded their networks offerimg subsidized smartphones

  • http://codytoombs.wordpress.com/ Cody Toombs

    Did some people not read the article?

    Quote: "fueled by content providers' willingness to pay for traffic"

    It means companies like Netflix will pay, out of their profits (read: raise their bills on cell phone users, or everybody) for you to have less (or none) taken from your data plans when using their services.  This is adjacent to Net Neutrality in a way, but it's not the same thing.  Net Neutrality was about prioritizing traffic (for payouts), which would ultimately lead to many sites becoming completely unusable, no matter what the customer wants to do or what they are willing to pay.  In that case, it becomes a highly anti-competitive move.  This is different because it's not restricting you from using whatever you want, it's just lowering the cost of using a given service.

    Is this going to effectively give the customer more access for less money, possibly.  Will there be questionable exclusivity deals, probably.  Is this a very aggressively competitive thing that only larger companies could do, yeah.  Is it probably going to be shady in other ways, YES!!!!  This involves cellular carriers, of course it will be shady!  They do illegal stuff all of the time. The same way that a kleptomaniac can't help stealing, they can't help themselves, they will do things that break the law, screw over their customers, and generally hurt other industries however they can.  At least I won't have to watch my data usage each month to make sure I don't go over...

    • Guest

       Wow dude, you and the rest of the sheep need to wake up and smell the coffee. This is 100% a net neutrality issue.

      I love how the minute some big corporation says you're getting something for free, the general public falls asleep and trusts said corporation.

      • http://codytoombs.wordpress.com/ Cody Toombs

        ... You're welcome

        Second, unless sarcasm is beyond your grasp, I can't see what I said that implies 'falling asleep and trusting'.  I actually spent a paragraph sorta ranting about how they aren't trustworthy.  I feel like referring back to the very first thing I said (with a slight modification), "Did some people not read the whole comment?"

  • Robert Oliveira

    "fueled by content providers' willingness to pay for traffic" sounds like a higher charge for content providers; a fee they are likely to pass on to end-users.

    That said, this was bound to happen given the data-hungry devices flooding the market, coupled with heavy-data/data-only services such as audio/video streaming just at the time when carriers started crimping the flow of data (their current measurable, billable, and profit-making commodity). Let's face it voice traffic is so last year (for AT&T, that's "so 23 seconds ago"). I mean - REALLY - do "Rollover Minutes" even matter any more?

    Too bad, we can't just get the service we're already paying for.

    • Mjackson0985

      Do I trust att (as I write this from my Att Skyrocket) no way but in a business set yes the content providers may raise the prices but in the end whenever att starts rolling out LTE everywhere then you will need some apps to be exclusive on data. When you can download 40mb/s on the train, you'll burn out a 5GB cap like it's blow in Hollywood. Nothing is free or fair, we all pay the cost of use if you don't like it. I'll buy you a hammer and we can fix all of that.

  • davidtb

    For NetFlicks and such, maybe the should flip the charge back on the retailer.

  • mgamerz

    It'd be nice, but the little guys will be screwed.

  • chris125

    It makes sense, I just hope all the carriers jump on this and it ends up being something that most people use and not just random services.

  • http://twitter.com/SimchaStein Fred Stein

    Great idea. BoxTop has the toolkit to build Mobile Apps to support this business model, and with the User Interfaces and the instrumentation at:
    BoxTop dot TV.