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AT&T's Stephenson: Content providers are asking for 'toll free' data plans

AT&T (NYSE:T) CEO Randall Stephenson said he believes "toll free" data plans, which would exclude certain types of content from counting toward a customer's monthly data allotment, likely will catch fire in the next 12 months.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson

Stephenson

Speaking at the Sanford Bernstein Strategic Decisions conference, Stephenson noted that customers are beginning to understand tiered data pricing, which may cause them to avoid data-heavy types of over-the-top content services. And since content providers are trying to monetize their content over mobile, he said he can envision a model where content providers are willing to pay to bring customers to their content.

"I think you'd be stunned if we weren't getting those phone calls. We are getting those phone calls," he said. "The content guys are asking for it."

Executives from Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and T-Mobile USA have also said they are considering offering toll free data plans, but have not committed to such offerings. 

In a wide-ranging conversation, Stephenson also talked about the future of data plans in general, how to more efficiently use spectrum and the changing nature of smartphone platforms. Stephenson echoed comments AT&T CFO John Stephens made at another investor conference earlier this week about AT&T's plans for shared data buckets.

Stephenson said that AT&T is "not focused on, per se, family plans, but on connecting the next device," and allowing customers to connect tablets, USB modems and other devices to an existing smartphone data plan for an incrementally higher cost. Stephenson also said that within the next 24 months he envisions some customers moving to data-only plans as voice and messaging become data applications.

Additionally, Stephenson talked about spectrum policy. He said that while more spectrum is needed, getting an additional, say, 50 MHz of spectrum into the market for six carriers to fight over is not enough. He said that federal regulators need to evaluate ways in which spectrum in private hands can be more easily transferred between companies and put to the most efficient use. Stephenson also voiced support for sharing spectrum with government agencies, but said AT&T prefers to completely own all of its spectrum assets to produce the most innovation. "In the short run I don't see that as a solution to the issues we have," he said.

Stephenson was asked whether there will be three viable smartphone platforms: Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS, Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android and Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows Phone. He said the question will become somewhat irrelevant, explaining that as LTE coverage expands and as more customers store their data in the cloud, they will likely become less attached to a particular device or operating system. He said this trend will catch fire with the advent of HTML5, when applications will become more important than the platforms they run on. 

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