AT&T Drops HBO Max Exemption From Wireless Data-Usage Caps, Citing California’s Net Neutrality Law

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AT&T will start counting streaming video used by HBO Max — and other telco-owned apps — toward wireless subscribers’ monthly data-usage caps. Previously, AT&T had provided unlimited usage of such services over its own networks for no extra change. The telecom and media conglomerate blamed California’s recently enacted net-neutrality law for the change.

“Given that the internet does not recognize state borders, the new law not only ends our ability to offer California customers such free data services but also similarly impacts our customers in states beyond California,” AT&T said in a statement Wednesday.

California’s net neutrality law was passed in 2018 but only last month did a federal court turn down telecom providers’ requests to delay its adoption. The law bars internet service providers from blocking or slowing down internet access — just as the FCC’s Open Internet rules adopted in 2015 under the Obama administration did, before those were mothballed under Trump. The FCC under President Biden is expected to seek reinstatement of the Open Internet rules.

However, California’s net neutrality law also bans “zero-rating” (or “sponsored data”) plans, which allow internet service providers to exempt specific services from counting against a user’s data cap. In 2017, the FCC under Trump dropped an inquiry into whether zero-rated plans violated net neutrality regulations.

Previously AT&T’s DirecTV unit had offered “Data Free TV,” allowing customers to stream their content over AT&T wireless service without it counting against their wireless data plan. HBO Max, from AT&T’s WarnerMedia, also has been available to AT&T wireless customers without that usage counting toward their monthly data limits.

The telco said its wireless division “has for years openly invited any entity to become a wireless data sponsor on the same terms and conditions.”

In the U.S., AT&T’s wireless and broadband business is a key distributor of HBO Max, representing about 25% of subscribers, according to the company. AT&T bundles HBO Max for free with its highest-priced wireless plans, which offer unlimited data so aren’t affected by the new policy.

AT&T said it “strongly advocate[s]” for Congress to adopt federal legislation that provides “clear, consistent and permanent net neutrality rules for everyone to follow” and makes internet access available and affordable to all Americans.

“A state-by-state approach to ‘net neutrality’ is unworkable,” the company said.