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Verizon skirts around Net neutrality laws with its new FreeBee sponsored data program

Verizon has become the second carrier in the U.S. to offer a sponsored data program, named FreeBee Data, which allows businesses to spend a heap of cash to waiver the data fee for customers, so you can browse their app or access certain content without using up any of your mobile data.

The program is split into two sections, FreeBee Data and Data 360. The latter gives you access to the entire app for free, while the former lets businesses choose specific free actions for subscribers, like watching a video, streaming audio, or downloading an app. For Verizon customers, that allows them to potentially view lots more content on their smartphone without going over their data plan limit each month. Users will see a little bee next to content that’s covered under the FreeBee Data program.

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Verizon’s partners will cover the cost of the data you consume whenever you use their app or visit their website. Checking your bank balance, streaming a news story, and other smaller data transactions wouldn’t hit your data cap under the plan. On a transaction-by-transactional basis, the consumption may not look like much, but added up over the month, it could free up a considerable chunk of data.

Businesses will be able to trial the sponsored data service over the next few months, to see if waiving the data cost brings any new users or subscribers. Amazon tried AT&T’s sponsored data plan when it launched the Fire Phone, but it didn’t draw in a lot of customers.

Verizon will launch the program in beta on January 25, with AOL, Hearst Magazines, and Game Day on board. The test program will sponsor content for 1,000 test subscribers, to see the effect free data has on user activity. Verizon claims that other businesses will be able to join the trial, though it doesn’t say how businesses can apply.

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It should be noted that AOL is now part of Verizon, after the $4.4 billion acquisition, making the sponsored data program seem even more likely to bother Net neutrality advocates. The Net neutrality laws passed in the middle of last year said that service providers shouldn’t be able to give advantages to a few companies, and FreeBee shows a willingness from Verizon to help its own brands succeed, while forcing competitors to pay for the same advantages.

Verizon offers the program at a time when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is just starting to rear its head. It sent letters to T-Mobile, AT&T, and Comcast on these zero data programs, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see Verizon added to the list, considering the similarities between FreeBee and AT&T’s sponsored data program. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler did say T-Mobile’s Binge On program was innovative and competitive a few months ago, so there is still hope for Verizon.