AT&T today announced a new feature for its data plans called Stream Saver that will effectively throttle mobile video streams starting sometime next year. Touted as a “free and convenient, data-saving feature,” AT&T will cap what it says are most video streams to 480p by default. To watch video in high definition, consumers will have to opt-out using the myAT&T app or on the company’s website. AT&T says there is no charge to use the feature.
It sounds innocuous right now, and in most cases having a data-saving tool you can toggle on and off at will is a good thing. (AT&T killed overage fees in August, so it no longer has a vested interest in letting customers exceed their limit.) Yet Stream Saver could pave the way for AT&T to start enabling the potentially net neutrality-violating exemption features championed by T-Mobile and its Music Freedom and Binge On initiatives. Those services are known as zero-rating because they exempt certain companies’ products and services, namely streaming services like Netflix and Spotify, from counting toward a customer’s monthly data cap.
AT&T has not announced any plans to zero-rate streaming services, but the lengthy launch window for Stream Saver gives the company the room to strike deals. AT&T already offers free mobile data to DirecTV customers, which has it at ends with the FCC because, well, AT&T owns DirecTV. One silver lining here with Stream Saver: AT&T will let you opt-out of the feature only once and it will stay that way, where as T-Mobile makes customers of its unlimited data plans toggle HD video on each and every day if they want to stream higher than 480p without Wi-Fi.
Given the results of the presidential election on Tuesday, the state of net neutrality under President-elect Donald Trump is now far more uncertain. Trump has signaled that he may roll back certain FCC protections that prevent companies like AT&T, Comcast, and T-Mobile from violating net neutrality principles. Of course, it’s likely AT&T had Stream Saver in the works for quite some time and there is no material connection between a Trump win and the actions of a giant telecom just a few days later. But AT&T now has an ally in Washington who may rule in its favor when the time comes to decide how service providers can and should treat internet traffic.