Earlier this week, AT&T took the cover off a new way for customers to watch mobile Relevant Products/Services content and use apps over its wireless network Relevant Products/Services without impacting their monthly wireless data Relevant Products/Services plans. Dubbed Sponsored Data, the carrier compared it to 1-800 numbers or free e-commerce shipping.

But it didn’t take long for the Net Neutrality debate to surface.

Here's the deal: Sponsored Data opens up new data use options for AT&T wireless customers and mobile broadband channels to businesses that choose to participate as sponsors. Data charges resulting from eligible uses will be billed directly to the sponsoring company.

Customers will see the service offered as AT&T Sponsored Data, and the usage will appear on their monthly invoices as Sponsored Data. Sponsored Data will be delivered at the same speed and performance as any non-Sponsored Data content. AT&T’s idea is to allow advertisers a new way to engage with customers, such as encouraging them to try a new app, promoting movie trailers and games, or pointing them toward mobile shopping sites.

The FCC Is Not Happy

"Customers love mobile content. Whether it's shopping, banking, entertainment or personal wellness, mobile content is increasingly available for customers almost anywhere and anytime," said Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO, AT&T Mobility. “And that's what makes this a win-win for customers and businesses -- customers just look for the Sponsored Data icon and they know the data related to that particular application or video is provided as a part of their monthly service.”

But the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) isn’t thrilled with the concept. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told the Wall Street Journal, "Make no mistake, we're ready to intervene. We want to encourage innovation, with the full capability and legal authority to intervene in those circumstances where there are untoward impacts on competition and consumers."

AT&T is also seeing resistance from California Congresswoman and Net Neutrality supporter Anna Eshoo, who wants to see the program squashed: "The announcement of a sponsored data program by AT&T puts it in the business Relevant Products/Services of picking winners and losers on the Internet, threatening the open Internet, competition and consumer choice."

AT&T Fights Back

AT&T responded almost immediately. Jim Cicconi, AT&T senior executive vice president of External and Legislative Affairs, said the company is completely confident this offering complies with the FCC's Net Neutrality rules, which AT&T supports.

"AT&T's sponsored data service is aimed solely at benefiting our customers," he said. "It allows any company who wishes to pay our customers' costs for accessing that company's content to do so. This is purely voluntary and non-exclusive. It is an offering by that company, not by AT&T."

We asked Jeff Kagan, an independent technology analyst, for his take on Sponsored Data. He told us the AT&T plan is simply a new idea. Whether it is better or worse, he said, will depend on how the marketplace reacts over time -- if the FCC doesn't shut it down first.

"I think this Sponsored Data idea has merit and I think other competitors will follow suit. It's a way to increase revenue for carriers like AT&T with no pain to the customer Relevant Products/Services," Kagan said. "I think we can expect to see much more of this kind of creative thinking in wireless going forward."