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AT&T's Ready to Make Videos Look Worse to Save You Data

Starting next year, the quality of your video streams on AT&T's network is going to be restricted in the name of saving you data. The good news? You'll be able to opt out of AT&T's program if you want higher-quality video.

AT&T announced today (Nov. 11) that it would roll out its AT&T Stream Saver program in early 2017. Stream Saver scales down high-definition streaming video to lower resolutions. AT&T says Stream Saver will yield DVD quality streams, which is around 480p resolution.

If you've been keeping tabs on what wireless carriers have been up to for the past year, this should all sound very familiar. In late 2015, T-Mobile rolled out a service called Binge On that let you watch DVD-quality streams from selected providers without it counting against your monthly allotment of data. T-Mobile has since adopted lower-resolution streaming for all video when customers sign up for the carrier's unlimited data plan. Sprint also throttles video for its unlimited data subscribers as well music and gaming.

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There's one key difference between AT&T's Stream Saver and what T-Mobile and Sprint offer. With those latter two carriers, if you want full-resolution video streaming you have to pay up for it in the form of a more expensive unlimited data plan. (T-Mobile also lets its subscribers buy HD video day passes for $3 if they want to watch a movie at its full resolution.) AT&T says its Stream Saver program is free, and that subscribers will be able to turn it on and off at will.

There's an argument to be made in favor of lower-resolution video streams. On a 5-inch smartphone display, you're unlikely to be bothered by the lower resolution the way you would on, say, a TV screen. Carriers argue that throttling video also enables them to offer cheaper unlimited data plans (in the case of T-Mobile or Sprint) or gives you the chance to make your data allotment go farther (in the case of AT&T, though that carrier stopped charging for overages this year).

The flipside is that restricting video resolution streams might run afoul of the FCC's net neutrality rules that says users should have access to legal online content without interference from providers. T-Mobile took flak when it rolled out Binge On, though AT&T's move to let customers easily opt out may short-circuit any criticism. AT&T has already gotten a warning from the FCC about its practice exempting its own video-streaming services from monthly data caps.