HBO Max gets a free ride on AT&T but that may not be a good thing

HBO Max went live at the tail end of last month, and if you're an AT&T subscriber, you'll find that streaming content from the new service doesn't count against your data cap. Specifically, streaming HBO Max over AT&T's network won't count against typical data caps for those who are metered connections, and it also won't count against the quasi-data caps on unlimited plans, where crossing a certain data usage threshold will lead to a throttled connection but not a halt to data access entirely.

So says The Verge in a new report today, which confirmed that HBO Max traffic is indeed excluded from AT&T's data rules after speaking with an unnamed executive from the company. That statement from the AT&T executive is actually a follow-up to a conversation with AT&T's Tony Goncalves in a recent episode of the Vergecast, where Goncalves was asked if HBO Max streaming would count against the company's data caps.

At the time, Goncalves said that the conversation had taken place at AT&T, but suggested a decision hadn't been made. This AT&T executive The Verge spoke to after the fact, however, confirmed that HBO Max is excluded from regular data usage rules as part of AT&T's "sponsored data" program, where companies can pay AT&T a fee to have their traffic excluded from data caps.

As The Verge points out, AT&T owns WarnerMedia, which in turn owns HBO Max, meaning that HBO Max gets to participate in the sponsored data program at no real cost to anyone. Other streaming services – such as Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+ – don't have that luxury and would all have to pay up if they want a level playing field with HBO Max.

HBO Max's competitors aren't likely to play ball with AT&T here, meaning that HBO Max will have an advantage over the others when streaming on AT&T's network. Of course, solid net neutrality regulations could have prevented something like this from happening, but thanks to current FCC commissioner Ajit Pai, that ship sailed back in 2018.