AT&T Chicago store (interior 001)

Today at CES, AT&T announced an interesting new service called Sponsored Data. The goal of the new service is essentially to offer a way for companies to pick up the tab for 4G data usage whenever specific products or services are being used.

How does it work? Well the carrier says that if the service is in effect, users will see a “sponsored” symbol in the status bar on the screen of their device. And this will indicate that all data charges are being redirected to the sponsoring company…

From AT&T’s press release:

“AT&T* today unveiled a new way for eligible 4G customers1 to enjoy mobile content and apps overAT&T’s wireless network without impacting their monthly wireless data plan.  Similar to 1-800 phone numbers or free shipping for internet commerce, AT&T’s new ‘Sponsored Data’ service opens up new data use options for AT&T wireless customers and customer-friendly mobile broadband channels to businesses that choose to participate as sponsors.

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.”

The potential applications for a service like this are vast. Imagine a developer paying for your data as you try out their new smartphone or tablet app. Or what about a studio picking up your 4G data tab so you can check out their latest movie trailer.

att sponsored data

Given that most carriers have moved to capped data plans, I feel like this is an interesting proposition. But some net neutrality advocates are crying foul, saying that the company that connects you to the Internet shouldn’t control what you do online.

For instance, if a larger company like Google wanted to drive traffic to its All Access music service, it could strike a deal with a carrier to pay for the subsequent data. Then as a consumer, it looks better than competing services because the data is free.

AT&T says that there won’t be any difference in the speed or quality of sponsored and un-sponsored data, and that the latter is “coming soon.”

So what do you think about all of this? Is it a good deal for customers?