AT&T Pushing its Limits in the Zero-Rating, Throttling Video Space

AT&T will throttle video to 480p or standard definition quality. Image source: AT&T

This week AT&T announced that in early 2017 the company would be launching a feature called “Stream Saver” that would limit mobile video quality for mobile customers as a way to take some of the streaming pressure off of its network by throttling streaming video quality and also to eat up less of mobile customers’ data limits.

The feature will throttle video to 480p or standard definition quality although there is no limit to if and when or how much mobile customers turn the service on and off and AT&T stresses it is a choice customers can make for themselves as it will ultimately affect their own data limits, positively for those that choose to use the Stream Saver feature.

However, AT&T has indicated that the feature will be enabled by default meaning even those with unlimited data will experience throttling of video streams unless they decide to disable to feature. So while for some the feature will be welcomed for the purpose of saving mobile customers from going over data limits and incurring additional charges for some the feature, that will be automatically enabled, is not necessary or warranted.

What AT&T has not indicated is whether Stream Saver will also throttle the quality of DirecTV video when streaming over a mobile network. AT&T has zero-rated its DirecTV video streams so users consuming DirecTV using their mobile device on a mobile network will not incur any data charges. It is a privilege that AT&T charges other companies the right for and a practice that the FCC has said may be in violation of net neutrality rules.

In a letter to AT&T the FCC said, quoting from the Open Internet Order, “AT&T seems to be ‘acting in ways that may harm the open internet, such as preferring [its] own or affiliated content [and] demanding fees from edge providers.’” AT&T has fought back saying that DirecTV pays for the zero-rating privilege but the problem is, the FCC says, “While there is no cash cost on a consolidated basis for AT&T to zero-rate its own affiliate’s mobile video service (since DirecTV’s ‘cost’ of Sponsored Data is equal to AT&T Mobility’s Sponsored Data ‘revenue’), an unaffiliated provider’s Sponsored Data payment to AT&T Mobility is a true cash cost.”

AT&T’s streaming video throttling venture on its mobile network shouldn’t cause much controversy the same cannot be said of its zero-rating of DirecTV video streams and for now it looks like it won’t fly with the current FCC, but with a new Republican-led FCC preparing to take over when the new US president in inaugurated it is likely that net neutrality violations by companies will not be punished in cases like zero-rating that isn’t a banned practice and it is rumored that a Trump presidency will lead to the overturning of net neutrality rules altogether.

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