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AT&T’s solution to data-hungry apps: Let developers pay the bill

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As smartphones become more and more popular, data usage and the expenses that can go with it are increasingly becoming hot-button topics for wireless customers and carriers alike. Too often we hear stories about smartphone users being charged extra, or having their connection speeds slashed, for heavy data usage. But according to the Wall Street Journal (subscription required), AT&T has a new idea: Force app developers to cover the bill.

John Donovan, AT&T’s head of network and technology, says that the country’s second-largest wireless provider is considering a “toll-free calling” plan for mobile apps. The system would work in a similar way to 1-800 numbers in that the company providing the service (in this case, the app maker), would cover the connection costs.

“A feature that we’re hoping to have out sometime next year is the equivalent of 800 numbers that would say, if you take this app, this app will come without any network usage.” said Donovan.

As it currently stands, customers have to foot the bill for their data usage. And if they go over the allotted amount of megabytes or gigabytes, the cost of such data can rise dramatically — an increasingly likely scenario when a fast 4G LTE connection is involved. But if AT&T’s new plan goes into place, developers would be able to offer certain apps where the data usage comes at no cost to the user. Obviously, this will have significant repercussions for the developer community, as big companies that can afford to cover customer data costs gain an edge over independent developers. It could also result in apps costing more up front, with the promise of no data fees.

Unfortunately, few details about the plan have yet been released, so we don’t know if this toll-free app scheme will be put in place; or, if so, when. Despite that, it seems to us likely that AT&T will move forward, as it would give the company the ability to get paid for data while not having to raise subscribers’ bills.