If you‘re an AT&T wireless customer who enjoys streaming HBO Max, you‘re probably less than thrilled about the company‘s recent announcement. Due to California‘s strict new net neutrality law, AT&T has ended its popular "sponsored data" program that allowed unlimited HBO Max viewing without counting against data caps.
This free streaming perk had been around since 2016, when AT&T first acquired the service then known as DirecTV Now. For heavy streamers, it was an incredibly valuable benefit that saved money on data overage fees. But on March 25th, 2022, AT&T quietly announced in a blog post that this sweet deal was coming to an end.
California‘s net neutrality legislation fundamentally changes the rules for cellular data plans. While the implications are complex, the bottom line is that you‘ll no longer be able to stream to your heart‘s content on HBO Max without exceeding your monthly data allowance.
How big of an impact is this change? What does it mean for the future of net neutrality and streaming costs? And most importantly, what can savvy cord cutters like yourself do to keep enjoying HBO Max affordably? I‘ll explain everything in this detailed guide.
A Quick Refresher on Net Neutrality
Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all online content equally, without blocking or favoring specific apps, sites, or services. This allows consumers to access anything they want on the web without interference from their ISP.
In 2015, strong federal net neutrality rules were passed under the Open Internet Order. But in 2017, the FCC repealed these rules under the Trump administration. This meant there were no restrictions on ISPs imposing data caps, speed throttling, or paid prioritization programs.
In response, several states including California passed their own net neutrality legislation. The key component of California‘s law is it bans arrangements where an ISP exempts certain content from a user‘s data cap. Known as "sponsored data" or "zero-rating", these programs were now prohibited under state law.
The Origin of AT&T‘s Controversial Sponsored Data Offerings
In 2014, AT&T launched their sponsored data program, becoming the first major ISP to offer zero-rated data deals. This allowed app developers and content providers to pay AT&T to exempt their services from customers‘ data caps.
Initially this included low-bandwidth apps like message services and music streaming. But in 2016, the launch of DirecTV Now (later rebranded to HBO Max) opened the door to unlimited video streaming with AT&T‘s owned services.
For AT&T wireless subscribers, this meant unlimited access to HBO Max without worrying about exceeding their monthly data allowance. As more customers cut the cord, it became an extremely popular perk.
By 2019, AT&T reported having over 10 million wireless subscribers using the sponsored data offering to stream video. For heavy mobile viewers, it provided incredible value.
But many pointed out this anti-competitive practice gave AT&T an unfair advantage. Users were incentivized to stream AT&T-owned platforms over competitors. Still, AT&T fought hard to defend the program as benefiting consumers.
California‘s Net Neutrality Law Finally Ends Controversial Program
Despite massive lobbying efforts by AT&T and other ISPs, California‘s net neutrality law passed in 2018 with strong protections. It prohibited sponsored data arrangements that put certain services at an advantage by exempting them from data caps.
This meant AT&T could no longer offer wireless subscribers unlimited streaming of HBO Max, which by then had grown to over 44 million U.S. subscribers. Faced with either ending the popular perk or mounting an expensive legal fight, AT&T chose to notify customers of the change starting in spring 2022.
We regret the inconvenience to customers caused by California’s new ‘net neutrality’ law. 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.
While cord cutters may be disappointed at losing this streaming perk, consumer advocacy groups see it as a major win.
"By banning zero-rating programs, California is taking a stand for the rights of consumers and fair competition," said Ernesto Falcon of Public Knowledge. "People should choose services based on quality, not because their ISP makes certain platforms exempt from data caps."
Who Benefits from Banning Sponsored Data Programs?
Proponents argue that ending sponsored data arrangements levels the playing field and promotes consumer choice, competition, and free expression. Here‘s why they believe it‘s a positive change:
- Prevents anti-competitive behavior: When ISPs can exempt their own services from data caps, it squeezes out competitors. This gives the ISP an unfair advantage in reaching subscribers.
- Upholds net neutrality principles: Sponsored data allows ISPs to manipulate internet traffic and favor certain services over others, violating open access.
- Promotes innovation: Emerging streaming platforms can now compete on even ground with established services like HBO Max.
- Means more consumer choice: Without sponsored data incentives, users are free to choose streaming services based on experience not data restrictions.
However, some experts argue there are also benefits to well-designed zero-rating programs:
- Can make services more affordable: Sponsored data can allow ISPs to offer cheaper plans with lower data caps.
- Provides consumer value: Customers obviously appreciate services not counting against their data.
- Increases internet adoption: Free streaming could motivate more usage of mobile internet and streaming media.
But on balance, many believe the potential harms of allowing ISPs to play favorites outweigh the advantages of sponsored data.
How Ending HBO Max‘s Data-Free Streaming Could Impact Consumers
Now that the free ride is over, here are some of the key implications cord cutters should be aware of:
- Heavy HBO Max users will burn through data caps faster. Be prepared for overage fees or the need to upgrade your wireless plan.
- Some may downgrade from unlimited plans since they offer less value without the zero-rated perk.
- Watching on the go via mobile networks will require more careful data management.
- Overall wireless prices could rise as carriers look to recoup lost revenue opportunities.
- However, consumers may save money by choosing streaming plans based on value not data exemptions.
It remains to be seen exactly how usage patterns and costs will be impacted. But you can expect AT&T to make adjustments to pricing and plan structures in response, just as they did when the Open Internet Order took effect in 2015.
|Video Quality||Data Per Hour (in GB)|
|360p (SD)||0.65 GB|
|1080p (HD)||3 GB|
|4K UHD||7.2 GB|
Tips to Keep Enjoying HBO Max Without Exceeding Your Data Cap
Don‘t panic yet if you are an AT&T customer who loves streaming HBO Max on your phone or tablet! There are plenty of ways you can keep watching without racking up data overage charges:
- Download over WiFi whenever possible. HBO Max allows you to download movies and shows to your device‘s storage. Take advantage of this feature on your home WiFi.
- Adjust video resolution settings. Stream at lower resolutions like 720p to save data (see table above).
- Use apps like PlayOn Cloud to record and download. PlayOn lets you save HBO Max video to watch later offline.
- Connect your phone to WiFi when available. Auto connect to any secure public networks.
- Explore AT&T‘s new wireless plans. They may offer cheaper unlimited options to replace sponsored data.
- Consider switching carriers if another offers better value. Some other carriers still zero-rate select platforms.
- Use a VPN to compress streams. VPNs like Surfshark can optimize video streaming to use less data.
The bottom line is don‘t let this change prevent you from enjoying top-tier content from HBO Max. With some smart streaming strategies, you can minimize the impact of losing AT&T‘s formerly sponsored data.
The Future of Net Neutrality Remains Uncertain
The bigger open question looking ahead is how net neutrality will be regulated going forward.
AT&T has claimed California‘s state law has effectively imposed net neutrality rules nationwide. But many experts believe national standards implemented by the FCC or Congress would provide more consistency.
Net neutrality regulation is likely to oscillate based on election outcomes and the balance of power. Apps and platforms may come and go as data favoritism policies evolve.
But by staying informed and finding ways to stream smarter, you as a cord-cutter can roll with the changes. Focus on maximizing streaming value, not just what you can watch for "free" based on sponsored data gimmicks.
I hope this guide has helped explain the implications of AT&T removing HBO Max from their controversial sponsored data program. Please let me know if you have any other questions! I‘m here to help you navigate the ever-changing world of streaming.