AT&T Patents System That Could Charge File-Sharers Extra For Data

While the Six Strikes alert system, in which Internet service providers send a series of notices to suspected illegal file-sharers before finally penalizing their accounts, is primarily a way for ISPs to placate Hollywood studios and the recording industry, it doesn’t do much to aid the ISPs in their ongoing war against consumers who use huge amounts of data, and doesn’t deal with wireless file-sharing. That must be why AT&T has filed a patent application for a system that would prevent what it deems “bandwidth abuse” by charging supposed data hogs more money.

The application for the patent, titled “Prevention Of Bandwidth Abuse Of A Communications System,” was filed back in Sept. 2013 but is only now coming to light thanks to the folks at [via], who noticed it earlier this week.

According to the application, the system works by first assigning each user with a certain number of “credits.” Units of time or data could also be used, so basically this is just another way of looking at a data cap.

“As the user consumes the credits, the data being downloaded is checked to determine if is permissible or non-permissible,” reads the patent, which defines non-permissible data as things like “file-sharing files and movie downloads if user subscription does not permit such activity.” You might be fine with this definition until you scroll way down the patent and also see where AT&T defines the vague use of “excessive bandwidth” as non-permissible.

If AT&T determines the data is hunky-dory, the user gets all their credits back to the level they were before. But if the system flags this data as non-permissible, the user does not get his full allotment of credits back.

“Various restriction policies also can be applied, such as levying additional fees and/or terminating the user’s access to the channel,” explains the patent. “Also, incentives can be provided to entice the user curb the misuse,” such as allowing the user to earn back the lost credits.

So basically, the system would give the ISP or wireless data provider the ability to chip away at a data hog’s data allotment as a penalty or charge people fees for allegedly violative behavior.

The “Background” portion of the application, which was filed by AT&T Mobility, focuses almost solely on this patent’s relevance to wireless data:

Because a wireless network is shared by many users, transfers of such large files can result in denial of access to other users of the network until some of the channel bandwidth becomes available. Previous attempts in wire-line systems to address this type of use (misuse) include monitoring channel traffic and terminating a subscription or terminating communications if misuse is detected. This is not a practicable solution in a wireless network for several reasons. Additional hardware would have to be installed resulting in additional cost of the system. By the time the misuse is detected, resources will have already been allocated. Further, shutting down a user completely can result in a loss of revenue.

However, much of the remaining language in the application is vague enough to apply to both wired and wireless data use.

As with all automated data-monitoring systems, the big question is how the ISP or wireless provider determines whether or not a large file being shared is legitimate or not. If I purchase a game from the PlayStation Store, it can suck up anywhere from a few hundred megabytes to dozens of gigabytes. What indicator would AT&T look for that I am legally downloading Borderlands 2 rather than swiping the same file from a server where a friend placed it for the taking?

That’s what is so frightening about this patent application — which may ultimately amount to nothing — that it simply decides that excessive bandwidth use is non-permissible.

Writes DSLreports’ Karl Bode:

It’s yet another AT&T idea aimed at further monetizing AT&T’s network that won’t be particularly popular among net neutrality advocates, as it dictates how much you’ll pay based on the content you use. This being AT&T, it seems likely (if ever actually implemented) that such a system would be layered on top of the existing cap and overage bandwidth pricing model.

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