AT&T system would restrict content access, charge fees to prevent 'bandwidth abuse'

AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) has developed an application-aware system designed to restrict customers from engaging in "non-permissible" bandwidth-intensive activities such as file sharing or movie downloading.

The company applied to patent the system, labeling its approach as "Prevention Of Bandwidth Abuse Of A Communications System." In its patent application, submitted during September 2013 and published by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office last month, AT&T said the system is designed to prevent a user "from consuming an excessive amount of channel bandwidth by restricting use of the channel in accordance with the type of data being downloaded to the user."

The carrier proposes issuing a customer an initial number of credits, which are used up as data is consumed. If the credits are close to running out and the customer's data use fits into the "permissible" category, "the user is provided another allotment of credits equal to the initial allotment," AT&T said.

If, however, the data activity is deemed a "non-permissible" use under the customer's subscription terms, the carrier would issue the user an allotment of credits less than the initial allotment. "Each time the user comes close to using up the previous allotment of credits, the traffic is analyzed and if the traffic is non-permissible, the number of credits is reduced," said the patent application.

Other proposed restrictions include the levying of extra fees for non-permissible activities or "terminating the user's access to the channel." AT&T suggested that incentives could also be provided "to entice the user curb the misuse."

Interestingly, the patent application references high-speed downlink packet access (HSDPA) and high-speed uplink packet access (HSUPA) networks, rather than LTE networks. However, it also states that the network design described is not intended to imply a specific implementation.

AT&T's patent application notes that a customer's credit threshold would be based upon analysis of a communication "to determine if it is of a type that will use an excessive amount of bandwidth." The carrier did not specify exactly how this analysis might be accomplished, though deep packet inspection (DPI) technology would seem to fit the bill.

While there is no indication that AT&T intends to implement such a scheme anytime soon or even at some point in the future, the carrier's patent application will likely raise red flags for net neutrality advocates who object to any network usage restrictions based upon content or service type.

It is easy to imagine how such an inspection and analysis system might be applied to Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) YouTube or NetFlix, for example, in an effort to quell the video traffic that threatens to engulf cellular networks.

Efforts such as those disclosed in the patent application could potentially dovetail off of AT&T's new "sponsored data" program, for which the carrier has received a lot of flak. Under the new toll-free data plans, expected to be available this quarter, data charges resulting from certain usage will be billed directly to a sponsoring company rather than AT&T customers.

AT&T has argued that the voluntary and optional sponsorships are beneficial for customers and will help them save money on data usage. It has also defended the sponsored data program against allegations that it might violate the FCC's net neutrality rules. About a week after AT&T announced the program, a federal appeals court struck down key parts of those rules anyway.

However, net neutrality supporters and some public interest groups have argued against such toll-free plans, saying that they will favor large, deep-pocketed content companies.

For more:
- see this USPTO document
- see this Google webpage
- see this DSLReports article

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