With "Sponsored Data," AT&T lets companies cover data charges for apps and videos

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AT&T is going where no carrier has gone before: With its new “Sponsored Data” service, companies will be able to foot the bill for you to access apps and videos on mobile devices.

The new service could be a useful way for companies to encourage consumers to watch videos and engage with their services without worrying about using up their monthly data bandwidth. Sponsored content will begin appearing today for eligible AT&T subscribers on its LTE 4G network.

AT&T is launching the service with several partners, including United Health Group, which plans to sponsor healthcare content for members.

Announced today at its annual developer forum in Las Vegas, which is held alongside the International CES, AT&T’s new sponsored service is already raising concerns that it could eventually offer faster service to sponsored content. AT&T was quick to point out that it’s treating sponsored content just the same as everything else on its network, but it’s not hard to imagine AT&T eventually backing out from that commitment.

Net neutrality proponents, who advocate for equal treatment of content online, are already crying foul:

“The FCC needs to protect consumers and creators from internet service providers (ISPs) who want to pick winners and losers online,” said Michael Weinberg, acting co-president of the public advocacy group Public Knowledge, in a statement today. “This is but the latest example of how data caps are increasingly becoming used to threaten the open internet”

“In addition to being a ripoff for both consumers and content creators, AT&T’s plan erects a massive barrier in front of anyone hoping to be the next big thing online,” Weinberg added.

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