Mobile data billing going toll-free?

Consumers worry about mobile data costs, which hinders their website visitation. Letting website owners pay for a user’s wireless data may be the answer.

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Credit: AT&T

AT&T earlier this year launched a pay-for-user-data program, along with an API, called Sponsored Data.

The idea is to let marketers pay for the mobile data that consumers use when they visit online properties, like a website. Consumers don’t like the idea that ads and other propaganda munch away at their data packages.

We didn’t hear much more about it media-wise after FCC rumblings of net neutrality issues surfaced shortly post-launch. AT&T denied that heinous slur then.

Free mobile data

Things may be rolling again, though. Syntonic, one of the companies that signed up for AT&T’s program, has just launched its product called Freeway.

The idea behind Freeway is that AT&T post-pay customers download apps from Google Play or Apple’s App Store. Upon launching the apps, they are presented with a catalog of free-to-download content.

Browsing that content is free of mobile network data charges--the consumer’s plan isn’t billed.

Categories in the app include shopping, travel, and so on.

Media suitable for featuring includes websites, viewing film trailers, or signing up for free trials, according to Alan F., who covered it for Podcasts are another suitable media.

Currently, Freeway users can view a trailer for the movie Frank vs. God, for example, without eating any of their data allowance.

Freeway participants

Syntonic’s brand Freeway has collected a number of participating organizations to launch with.

Those organizations are aggregated by Freeway’s app and show in the menu as free-to-download content. They currently include event ticket seller StubHub, coupon site Groupon, travel booking site Expedia, and, an ad-heavy video clip website.


Kickbit is another free data idea.

Unlike AT&T’s post-pay-oriented offering, Kickbit is pitching itself at pre-pay customers. Kickbit’s idea is that consumers earn "MBs," or megabytes, by watching videos, trialing products and taking surveys. A redemption button in its app lets users cash in the MBs earned. Those earnings are then loaded onto the consumer’s device as additional mobile data.

Boston-based Aquto, which makes the Kickbit, is somewhat vague on its website about which Mobile Network Operators are supported in which countries. However, it has integration with PayPal, and says it will provide a cash-back option if you’re "not eligible to earn additional data towards your plan."

I entered two pre-pay numbers on the website. Neither was Kickbit-eligible.

AT&T Sponsored Data sign ups

Other AT&T Sponsored Data providers include mobile content engagement companies Aquto and Hipcricket, and DataMi, which is a free mobile data provider along the lines of Syntonic.

Aquto has Hershey's, the chocolate maker, on board.

Worth it for businesses? is looking for an increase in the amount of time that a user spends on its site, and says it’s just going to be spending money it doesn’t need to if that doesn’t happen, according to Matt Diamond, CEO of Defy Media, which owns

Clearly in the air about it

Diamond was talking to Ryan Knutson, who was interviewing Diamond about the pricing model for the Wall Street Journal. In the same article, Knutson refers to an experiment recounted by online publication Slate that it performed with DataMi. Slate found podcast browsers were more likely to take up when they were told that the audio wouldn't consume any of their allotted data.

Net neutrality issues

One kicker this toll-free data thing has to contend with is net neutrality knee-jerking. Net neutrality says all content must be delivered equally, amongst other ill-defined things.

AT&T’s service provides a clear banner on each served-up webpage that indicates that the media is paid for by a sponsor. It uses the term "AT&T Sponsored Data"—a pretty blunt media differentiating message. It says what it means.

If the somewhat vague net neutrality argument is that all of the Internet should be equally accessible to everyone, then you could say that toll-free data complies with net neutrality; you can’t get better than free-down-the-pipe, so net neutrality negatives don’t apply.

If, though, as Diamond mentioned, the free data doesn’t increase eyeball time, no one’s going to care anyway, because the idea will be dead in the water.

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