Is Sponsored Data Something We Should Fear?

Is Sponsored Data Something We Should Fear?


In December 2012, my mother and I took a trip to Eleuthera, Bahamas to visit family and generally decompress from what had been a whirlwind year. While we were there, we happened to catch an episode of ABC’s hit series Scandal – it was the first time I’d ever seen the show, although friends and family members had been buzzing about it for months.

Needless to say, after that first episode, I was hooked, and being that we experienced a couple days of torrential rain while on our trip, I did what any red-blooded American would do while vacationing in paradise:  I spent several hours during the day and night watching Scandal on my iPhone trying to catch up with all things Olivia Pope.

The following January, I returned to Washington, D.C. refreshed and ready to tackle the new year, only to be confronted with a cell phone bill for $554.66. Sure, I’d consumed about six episodes of Scandal on my iPhone while roaming out of the country, but could my bill really be that high? What about the international roaming and data packages I’d purchased before I left the States?

I was none too happy, to say the least, and after a rather heated conversation with a very sweet customer service rep who tried her best to counsel me through my “first-world problem” of having consumed too much data on my smartphone, I had to take a step back, suck it up, and pony up the money to pay my bill. Indeed, I hated having to pay that much money, but I was lucky, because unlike millions of Americans who would love to stream music and videos on their smartphones or rely on their mobile device as their only internet connection, I could afford the cost of my use.

At first, I was sure AT&T had made some sort of mistake with my phone bill. But when I thought about it, during my week in the Bahamas, not only was I watching Scandal non-stop, like any good Gladiator would, but I was also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram sharing photos and recaps of my trip, as well as streaming music on Pandora and watching videos on YouTube (what’s a vacation without engaging in a requisite amount of voyeurism?); and let’s not forget the endless text messages – many with photos attached – to my then-boyfriend who was still stateside awaiting my return.

Fast forward about fourteen months later, and while I understand the concern expressed by some bloggers and consumer advocates that AT&T’s proposed Sponsored Data plans will somehow work an end-run around net neutrality, I’m less than convinced that the sky is really falling.

Notwithstanding the fact that wireless products and services are exempt from the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet Order, the sponsored data plans legitimately seem like a way to enable consumers to use bandwidth intensive services without running the risk of exceeding their data caps.

According to AT&T:

[quote]With the new Sponsored Data service, data charges resulting from eligible uses will be billed directly to the sponsoring company; the customer simply enjoys their content via AT&T’s wireless data network.  Customers will see the service offered as AT&T Sponsored Data, and the usage will appear on their monthly invoice as Sponsored Data.  Sponsored Data will be delivered at the same speed and performance as any non-Sponsored Data content.[/quote]

Perhaps it’s my reading of what this service is supposed to offer, but clearly I’m missing the nefarious intent to take down the web.

Here’s the thing, content is now, and always will be, KING! If you don’t have content I’m interested in, free or not, I could care less if you subsidize my visit to your site. Sponsored data may help you get your foot in the door, but it certainly does not guarantee audience permanence or loyalty. Network X could pay AT&T – or any wireless provider – for my ability to access its site all it wants to, but unless there’s something of real value being produced, or programming as compelling as Issa Rae’s Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, thanks but no thanks, I’ll pay for the content I want to see, when I want to see it, and have no problem using my data plan to those ends.

Likewise, just because I have the ability to use sponsored data, that doesn’t mean I will suddenly stop using non-sponsored data. To the contrary, if my high-bandwidth consumption is paid for by the likes of Google Play, Facebook and YouTube, I’m actually more likely to use my allocated data cap to explore other sites and applications that aren’t sponsored expressly because I have more wiggle room with my data usage each month.

Finally, the Internet is awesome because it is a dynamic system that grows and changes with consumer demand and desire. Back in the 1990s when the consumer Internet became popular, we all paid for email — remember those days, “you’ve got mail!” Now, because of the variety of services that have emerged, we look at people with a healthy dose of side eye if we learn they’re still paying for their email account. This notion of sponsored data should be the same way. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is taking the right approach by waiting to see what materializes from this new model before rushing to judgment about whether its the start of a consumer apocalypse or not, and we, the discerning public, should do the same.

In the end, is sponsored data something we should fear, or is it a new model for which we should all be excited because it means the end of overage charges for exceeding your data cap? Only time will tell, but if I should be so lucky as to go to Eleuthera again this year, I can only hope that ABC decides to sponsor its video player on AT&T’s network. If it doesn’t, I might end up singing Jimmy McMillan’s tune because my cell phone bill will certainly be too high!