Is AT&T playing gatekeeper to the Wireless Web?

The Net Neutrality debate is going mobile, as a consumer group questions why AT&T is limiting one streaming video app for the iPhone while allowing another to be used freely.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
6 min read

AT&T's decision to allow Major League Baseball fans to stream games live onto their iPhones while restricting video streaming using another video application has one advocacy group crying foul.

With the release of the 3.0 version of Apple's iPhone operating system this week, subscribers to a popular application from Major League Baseball called At Bat will now get the chance to stream live video feeds of baseball games directly to their iPhones or iPod Touches. The first game was streamed Thursday afternoon, featuring a match up between the Chicago Cubs and White Sox.

But unlike other video streaming applications, such as SlingPlayer, the MLB At Bat live video can be accessed regardless of whether a subscriber is connected to the Internet via AT&T's 3G network or a Wi-Fi connection.

The SlingPlayer app, which allows iPhone users to redirect cable and broadcast TV from their TVs at home to their iPhones, is only permitted by AT&T to operate over a Wi-Fi connection. When the SlingPlayer application was first released last month, AT&T said that it restricted the application to Wi-Fi because streaming live broadcast TV over its 3G wireless network "violated the company's terms of use."

But now AT&T is allowing MLB to do exactly what it would not allow Sling to do, which is stream live broadcast TV over its 3G cellular network onto iPhones. So what gives? Is AT&T playing favorites?

That's exactly what Ben Scott, policy director for the advocacy group Free Press, thinks. The group issued a statement Thursday expressing its concern over what it sees as an inconsistent policy.

"We are troubled that carriers like AT&T are playing gatekeeper to the next generation of wireless Internet applications," Scott said in a statement. "No Internet service provider should be allowed to pick winners and losers online."

Free Press has long supported the notion of a free and open Internet. And the company has pushed the Federal Communications Commission to confirm that its Net Neutrality principles also apply to wireless networks. The FCC's Internet Policy Statement protects consumers' right to access any online content and services on any device of their choosing. These principles were used effectively last year to punish broadband provider Comcast for deliberately slowing some of its customers' BitTorrent traffic, a move that other broadband providers including AT&T has pointed to as evidence that no further regulation is needed to protect consumers' access to Internet applications.

AT&T has also publicly supported the notion that these Net Neutrality rules should also apply to wireless Internet access. In fact, Jim Cicconi, senior executive vice president of legislative affairs for AT&T, said as much during a panel discussion hosted by a Washington Post reporter in November.

"The same principles should apply across the board. As people migrate to the use of wireless devices to access the Internet, they...certainly expect that we treat these services the same way," the Washington Post reporter quoted Cicconi as saying in her blog post.

Free Press's Scott, who appeared on the panel with Cicconi in November, pointed out AT&T's contradiction in his statement.

"AT&T has acknowledged that open Internet principles should apply to wireless and that consumers expect unfettered mobile access," Scott said. "So why is AT&T deciding what online video its iPhone customers can watch and what they can't?"

The argument put forth by Free Press is a compelling one. And right now, AT&T doesn't have an answer or an explanation as to why the MLB streaming video would be treated differently from the Sling video. Mark Siegel, an AT&T spokesman, said the company could not comment yet until it looked into the matter further.

But earlier this year, Siegel had plenty to say about Sling and streaming video in general. As a guest on the Clark Howard radio show, Siegel compared using Sling's service over a wireless connection to sending bulk e-mail and spam, activities that he said eat up too much of the network's bandwidth. "You can't use a service called 'Slinging,' where you redirect a wireless TV signal to your phone. We do not allow that type of application on our phones," he said. "It's absolutely cool (technology), but if we allowed these kinds of services, the highway would quickly become clogged."

Indeed, streaming video eats up a lot of bandwidth. Because cellular networks are divided into cells, users in a particular cell share the available bandwidth in that cell or region. This means that streaming a lot of high-quality video over the network could potentially eat up all the available bandwidth and degrade service for other subscribers in that cell.

This is why MLB.com is using a standards-based streaming technology that will detect the speed of the network and adjust the quality of the video to the bandwidth that is available. The latest version of the SlingPlayer submitted to Apple for the App Store used similar technology that would cap the bit rate to ensure it was below Apple's and AT&T's threshold, according to David Eyler, a project manager for Sling Media, who commented for an earlier story on CNET News on this topic.

Eyler also said during that earlier interview that the explanation he had been given for not allowing the SlingPlayer to be used over the 3G network was that AT&T doesn't allow video services that redirect TV signals onto its network.

What's even more puzzling about why AT&T would allow MLB's At Bat application to be used over its 3G network and not the SlingPlayer, is the fact that the MLB application is likely to put a lot more strain on the network than the SlingPlayer App. Here's why. The MLB At Bat application is likely to have more subscribers streaming video than the SlingPlayer app. MLB.com At Bat 2009 ranks among the top 100 overall paid applications in the App Store, according to the MLB's own Web site. And the application, which costs $9.99 to download, has only been available for about two months.The new, free streaming capability is likely to encourage even more downloads.

Meanwhile, the SlingPlayer app, which costs $29.99 to download, is likely to appeal to only a niche audience, since it also requires users to have a $150 SlingBox device in their homes to redirect the TV signals to their iPhones.

But more importantly, MLB At Bat subscribers will be tuning into the same video event at the same time. And since sports fans often root for teams in their own city, there is a good chance that many fans tuning into a particular game on their iPhones will be in the same geographic area, which is exactly the kind of scenario that could bring a cellular network to its knees. AT&T struggled to keep its 3G network up and running in Austin during the South By Southwest (SXSW) conference earlier this year when there was a high concentration of iPhone users.

By contrast, SlingPlayer users are not likely to be accessing the same video content at the same time in the same exact cell or region, which is actually less taxing on a wireless network.

But this isn't the first time that AT&T has shown preferential treatment to one application over another. OrbLive, which is offered on the App Store, also redirects TV signals onto the iPhone using a Wi-Fi network or the 3G cellular network. The application is designed to allow people to stream media from a PC to the iPhone wirelessly, much like how the SlingPlayer works.

For right now, iPhone users are simply left to wonder "why?" But stay tuned for more updates. I'm confident that AT&T will have an explanation shortly.