PhotoYou have to hand it to AT&T -- it never stops trying to go back in time, back to the days when it was able to attach little dollar signs to just about everything anyone could think of doing with a telephone.

One of its cleverest inventions was the 800 number that enabled businesses to pick up the tab when customers (and anybody else, for that matter) called them. This was regarded as the latest and greatest thing in customer relations back in the day. Pretty soon, every business was shelling out big bucks and AT&T's cash register rang merrily all day long.

But then the nasty old Internet ended all that. Or did it? AT&T has never given up hoping that it will find a way to once again get its mitts into those deep corporate pockets.

Of course, we all pay for the Internet -- consumers, businesses, government, charities, scam artists. The original idea was that everyone would have access to everything without paying any kind of extra charge beyond a modest monthly access fee.

Well, we all know how that worked out. Now, consumers pay $60 or more for their Internet connection at home. Then they pay up to a few hundred more for broadband service on their smartphones, over and above the fee for plain old telephone and text calls. Quite a bit of this flows into AT&T's coffers, along with those of Verizon, Sprint and other titans of the Internet.

Just a few hundred million more

But it has always irked AT&T that it can't gouge businesses for a few hundred million more per year.

So, never one to retreat from a bad idea, AT&T today rolled out its latest version of its One Big Idea at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, billing it as "a new way for eligible 4G customers to enjoy mobile content and apps over AT&T’s wireless network without impacting their monthly wireless data plan."

Not bashful about admitting its single-minded obsession, AT&T describes the scheme as "similar to 1-800 phone numbers or free shipping for internet commerce," and says its "Sponsored Data" service will be the greatest thing since, well, the 800 number.

"With the new Sponsored Data service, data charges resulting from eligible uses will be billed directly to the sponsoring company; the customer simply enjoys their content via AT&T’s wireless data network," AT&T burbled.

“Customers love mobile content. Whether it’s shopping, banking, entertainment or personal wellness, mobile content is increasingly available for customers almost anywhere and anytime," enthused Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO, AT&T Mobility, calling it "an exciting new opportunity for us and, most importantly, our customers.” 

Think anyone will be crazy enough to sign up? AT&T is betting that once a few players in each sector -- healthcare, entertainment, financial services -- take the plunge, their competitors will have to follow. And, even now that it has become a doddering shadow of its once munificent self, it's probably not wise to bet against AT&T. Its lobbying and marketing muscle can still bedazzle regulators, corporate bean-counters, consumers and everyone in between. 

And, after all, it would be a good thing, perhaps, for consumers, except that in the end the costs would just get marked up and put right back into the pricing for the goods and services sold by the corporate customers shaken down by AT&T.

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