Verizon introduces ‘toll-free’ data

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FILE -- Verizon unveiled a new logo Wednesday, September 2, 2015. It is the first redesign for the wireless, cable and telephone provider in 15 years.

NEW YORK — Toll-free “800” numbers have arrived for your data plan.

Verizon announced a new “FreeBee Data” service Tuesday, which will allow third-party companies to pick up the tab for your data usage when you download content from their apps, websites and services. That’s just like when you dial an 800 number — the company you’re dialing pays for the call, not you.

In one hypothetical example, a media company might pay for the megabytes of data that you use when you read stories and watch videos on its mobile website or app. Or a music app could pay for the songs you stream on your smartphone.

None of that data would count against your bucket of gigabytes that you pay for every month.

Starting January 25, Hearst Magazines, Gameday and Verizon-owned AOL will sponsor some mobile content for 1,000 test subscribers. Those content companies will send Verizon a check for each video, music clip and app customers that customers stream or download. Verizon said other brands can participate in the trial if they want to, and the carrier expects that program to go live later this year.

Verizon is also testing out a separate program that lets content companies pay Verizon per gigabyte of customer downloads and streams, rather than paying for each separate click.

The carrier said the new toll-free data plan is going to give content companies a powerful new way to market to customers using mobile phones.

“In today’s digital economy, FreeBee Data is a departure from the one size fits all approach to marketing,” said Colson Hillier, head of consumer products at Verizon. “We look forward to providing our Verizon Wireless subscribers with more options to access amazing content without data charges.”

AT&T has also been testing toll-free data for nearly two years, but it hasn’t been heavily promoted.

Last month, T-Mobile unveiled its “Binge On” unlimited streaming plan, in which certain customers can stream videos on their smartphones without that data counting against their data plans. T-Mobile has a similar deal for streaming music.

But Netflix, Hulu, Spotify and other companies included in those free streaming deals aren’t paying for that data — T-Mobile is just giving it away for free. Verizon and AT&T are trying to get third-parties to sponsor the data themselves.

The toll-free data initiative will likely raise questions about net neutrality and fairness. If a big company has deep enough pockets to pay for your data, it’s possible that you would favor that service over a rival’s app that counts against your monthly data plan.

By David Goldman

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