Depending on where you stand, AT&T has either become the angel of mercy or the devil incarnate. Rarely have we seen so much vitriol emerging from the press over a data plan a telecoms operator has released.

We are talking here about AT&T’s ‘Sponsored Data’ plans and you’d think, reading some of the rubbish being thrust upon us, that the AT&T executive should be hanged, drawn and quartered simply for being innovative and daring and coming up with ways to make money. Has that also become unfashionable in some quarters of the U.S. press?

It all boils down to AT&T offering suppliers of content and digital services the means to pay for the data traffic taken up when delivering their goods, anything ranging from movies to healthcare — the idea being that customers will not be disadvantaged from using up some of their own data cap.

In developing economies this type of thing has been around for years under a number of guises and has been of great benefit to all parties involved. So why is deemed to be such a threat to things like net neutrality and, as Om Malik at GigaOM proclaimed, as “a sneaky attack on innovation” and an innocuous case of “double dipping”?

What? The data has to be paid for by somebody, and if a supplier chooses to sponsor data for its customers, it won’t become part of the customer’s allocated plan and they won’t be charged for it. Malik must have very little knowledge of how sophisticated telco billing and charging is these days, or he thinks all network operators are crooks.

Malik also claims he is “too skeptical of phone companies to actually think they are doing the right thing by their customers.” That’s plain to see when you read his claim that “all phone companies have always wanted is a quasi-circuit switched model superimposed on the internet.”

I suppose Mr Malik thinks the billions of dollars network operators spend each year on providing the networks the Internet relies on come from thin air. Or maybe that network operators should just give access away free. Of course somebody has to pay, but does it really mater who? It is a free enterprise market after all. If companies don’t wish to take up the offer, so be it. Simply canning it because of some deep-rooted disdain for telcos is hardly good reason.

John Strand, writing as The Outsider for TM Forum, was far more analytical and practical in his approach to AT&T’s ‘Sponsored Plans’. He compared them to “the toll-free 1-800 services with which Americans are familiar.” As for the threat to net neutrality he states, “The argument is that AT&T’s sponsored data gives preferential treatment to content application providers that pay more, makes content application providers that don’t pay worse off, and deters consumers from discovering content and apps on their own. However, it is doubtful that net neutrality drives the app discovery process.”

What about the percentage of population in the U.S. that can’t afford access to the Internet? Could this be a means to get them online? It certainly worked in Indonesia and India when operators working with Facebook, in particular, offered zero-rated data to customers accessing its site.

Regardless of the hyperbole going around, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has taken a far less animated stance saying, “Let’s take a look at how it operates and be sure, that if it interferes with the operation of the Internet; that if it develops into an anticompetitive practice; that if it does have some kind of preferential treatment given somewhere, then that is cause for us to intervene.”

Storm in a teacup? Only time will tell if AT&T is being evil or really has come up with something innovative the market will jump on. It is a bit early to start the witch-burning fires, don’t you think?

First published as The Insider at TM Forum