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HBO Max won’t hit AT&T data caps, but Netflix and Disney Plus will

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Welcome to a world without net neutrality

HBO Max showing Friends

HBO Max, AT&T’s big bet on the future of streaming, will be excused from AT&T’s mobile data caps, while competing services like Netflix and Disney Plus will use up your data.

That’s the follow-up from a Vergecast conversation with Tony Goncalves, the AT&T executive in charge of HBO Max. Asked whether HBO Max would hit the cap, Goncalves said his team “had the conversation” but didn’t have the answer. AT&T later confirmed to The Verge that HBO Max will be excused from the company’s traditional data caps and the soft data caps on unlimited plans.

According to an AT&T executive familiar with the matter, HBO Max is using AT&T’s “sponsored data” system, which technically allows any company to pay to excuse its services from data caps. But since AT&T owns HBO Max, it’s just paying itself: the data fee shows up on the HBO Max books as an expense and on the AT&T Mobility books as revenue. For AT&T as a whole, it zeroes out. Compare that to a competitor like Netflix, which could theoretically pay AT&T for sponsored data, but it would be a pure cost.

That’s why the last time we looked at AT&T’s sponsored data system, the only three streaming services we could find using it... were owned by AT&T. It’s also why sponsored data systems fly in the face of net neutrality principles. AT&T’s streaming services have a major advantage over its competitors, all of which run up against the cap. But there’s no net neutrality in the United States anymore, so AT&T is free to give itself preferential treatment.

“The network is the plumbing, and the content is the water. And you’re seeing water and the plumbing kind of coming together,” said Goncalves.

Listen to the entire show, or check out the full transcript here.