| NEW YORK
NEW YORK Jan 6 AT&T Inc plans to give
cash-strapped consumers options to save money on mobile data
fees as soon as this quarter while offering sponsors a new way
to entice consumers to use their services.
The company said it will announce details on Monday at
AT&T's developer conference at the Consumer Electronics Show.
The offering will let sponsors subsidize consumer's data fees,
which have gradually gotten more expensive in recent years as
phone companies charge for mobile web-surfing based on how much
data their customers download.
AT&T, the No. 2 U.S. mobile operator, compared the offering
to 1-800 telephone services where businesses such as florists
pay for inbound calls with a view to attracting more consumers.
It will start with deals from companies including a health
insurer, an advertiser and a software firm but may expand to
businesses ranging from media companies to retailers.
AT&T and its rival Verizon Wireless have both
talked about the idea of offering sponsored data for two years,
but the plans have been slow to materialize as the operators
sought partners and worked out how best to offer the service.
AT&T's first partners include insurer UnitedHealth Group Inc
, Boston-based advertising start-up Aquto and
Orlando-based mobile software developer Kony Solutions.
It said the offering could also work well for retail, media,
entertainment and financial services customers or could be used
by employers aiming to sponsor their own workers' data usage for
certain corporate applications.
Under the new service, AT&T said data charges from use of
sponsored content would be billed directly to the sponsor and
will appear on the consumer's invoice as sponsored data.
For example AT&T said that UnitedHealth customers could view
healthcare information or videos from their insurer without
incurring data or customers using Aquto's service could watch
ads without incurring data fees.
Kony customers, which include hoteliers, could potentially
use its reservation systems to let customers book hotel rooms
while on the go without having to pay AT&T for the airtime.
Mark Collins, AT&T senior vice president for voice and data
products, said the service would complement existing data
services for cost-conscious customers.
Collins declined to disclose financial arrangements for the
service but said that agreements would differ between sponsors
depending on their agreements and that some companies will
engage in revenue-sharing deals with the operator.
ReconAnalytics analyst Roger Entner said UnitedHealth was a
good launch partner for AT&T because it could provide an
important service by giving lower-income consumers easier access
to key health information.
"Consumers will like it. Americans always like 'free',"
Jan Dawson, analyst at Jackdaw Research worried that unless
AT&T provides strong safeguards there could be a potential for
fraud if providers of bandwidth-hungry applications falsely
claim to be offering sponsored data.
But he said that the service was an important milestone
since it would mark the first time an operator would charge
someone other than its customers for its data services.
"It will have the biggest impact for applications involving
video, since that's the biggest driver of bandwidth consumption,
but it will be useful for other services too," Dawson said.
AT&T said sponsored data will be delivered at the same speed
as any non-sponsored content. It will provide more details along
with executives from the three sponsors it named to an audience
of developers and media at the CES show in Las Vegas.