There is nothing in the mobile world that uses data faster that streaming video. If you are on a limited data plan, streaming video over cellular can eat up your data allotment with just a single episode of a television show. The wireless carriers have tried to come up with solutions to this problem and this week AT&T is working with both of the popular choices.
If you are using an AT&T phone, no matter what your data plan, you will soon be enrolled in AT&T's new program: Stream Saver. Following the moves of Sprint and T-Mobile, AT&T will begin limiting the quality of video streamed on its network. Rather than receiving video at 1080 or above, all video will default to 480 instead.
The company is implementing this restriction in an attempt to save you from their other restriction: limited data. By limiting the video quality, you will be able to stream move video without exceeding you data allotment. Unfortunately, the restriction also applies to users who have an unlimited data plan, though technically speaking, unlimited plans can be throttled after 22GB of usage.
Luckily, Stream Saver is completely configurable. Users are capable of disabling the feature at will. If you are more interested in video quality than saving data, simply turn the feature off in your myATT account. Unlike with T-Mobile, disabling this feature does not cost anything additional.
All video streaming services are affected by Stream Saver, except possibly one: DirecTV. If you are a subscriber of both AT&T's mobile and television service, you can stream the DirecTV video unrestricted. Video from their own provider will not affect your data cap at all, making Stream Saver a needless feature. This feature, named Sponsored Data, seems very similar to T-Mobile's Binge On feature, where partners' content does not count against a customer's usage.
The FCC does not seem to see these features as related, simply because DirecTV is owned by AT&T. In fact, Jon Wilkins from the FCC wrote a letter to Bob Quinn, AT&T's external and legislative affairs head, complaining about the new feature. In the letter, Wilkins claims that the new feature might violate some rules. In response, Quinn said,
With our Data Free TV offer, DirecTV picks up the tab for our Mobility customers' data use when they're streaming content. For example, consumers can watch DirecTV content - such as NBC, Fox News, CBS, CNN, ESPN - all on their AT&T mobile devices without incurring any data changes. While we welcome additional questions, we hope the FCC will consider the enormous value consumers find in obtaining free data or free streaming where someone else is footing the bill for their data.
This move by the FCC is a little surprising, for a couple of reasons. First, the "Net Neutrality" rules that were implemented do not fully apply to wireless, only wireline. As evidence of this is Binge On - essentially the same service. Second is the FCC's relative ineffectiveness. Most of the upper management of the FCC are on the chopping block with the new administration taking over in January, so any move they make today is likely to be reconsidered in a mere 2 months. It seems like a hollow gesture to make this move now.
Likely, this move has to do with shining a spotlight on AT&T at a time when they are looking to add Time Warner to their previous DirecTV purchase. The FCC has been against AT&T purchases in the past, including their failed T-Mobile purchase.