AT&T throws Bitcoin a bone with BitPay deal

Nick Wood
By Nick Wood

May 24, 2019

via Flickr ©  btckeychain (CC BY 2.0)

via Flickr © btckeychain (CC BY 2.0)

  • Customers can now pay their bills with cryptocurrency
  • Offers glimpse of trustless future, but intermediaries still needed for now
  • Agreement lends legitimacy to oft-maligned blockchain sector

AT&T has dipped its toe into the world of cryptocurrencies, becoming the first US telco to let its customers pay their bills with Bitcoin.

The US telco has struck a deal with BitPay, which offers cryptocurrency wallet hosting and payment processing services to businesses and consumers.

"We have customers who use cryptocurrency, and we are happy we can offer them a way to pay their bills with the method they prefer," said Kevin McDorman, VP of AT&T Communications Finance Business Operations.

AT&T's venture into crypto lends an air of legitimacy to this oft-maligned sector.

Shifting money around with the Bitcoin blockchain is slow, expensive, and the value of the cryptocurrency itself could fluctuate wildly compared to its fiat ancestors during the time in which it takes a payment to wend its way to the recipient – a risk that in this case is assumed by BitPay. On the face of it, Bitcoin payments don't offer anything that's quicker or necessarily cheaper than say PayPal or a direct debit.

This makes it easy to dismiss the whole blockchain sector as a fad, or technology only useful to cyber criminals and drug dealers. So easy in fact, that some commentators who should know better, scoff at blockchain, probably in the same way that some commentators in the early 90s scoffed at the Internet. The same cognitive bias that was prevalent in the early days of the Internet is alive and well in the blockchain era.

Blockchain is comparable to the Internet because the former has the potential to do for transactions what the latter did for information, i.e. open the floodgates and let them flow everywhere, because it removes the need for them to be overseen by an appointed, centralised authority.

Today you might have a smart soap dispenser that notifies the owner when it needs topping up. With blockchain, tomorrow that soap dispenser could invoke a smart contract that orders, pays and schedules delivery for the exact volume of soap needed to top it up, and nothing more, all without human intervention.

Today, AT&T customers can pay for their monthly package of minutes, texts and data by using an intermediary, BitPay, to send some Bitcoin – the clunky, slightly hapless grandpappy of crypto. Tomorrow, with an updated Bitcoin blockchain, or a different blockchain altogether, AT&T customers might automatically pay for their exact usage down to the kilobyte, or for individual online services like DirecTV Now, in real time, based on actual usage, in a way that is actually cheaper and simpler for all parties involved. No fussing about data allowances, or paying extra to subscribe to a content bundle.

AT&T's foray into crypto-based bill payment could prove to be the first step on a long and fruitful journey, one that any budding DSP – many of whom gathered this week at TelecomTV's DSP Leaders Forum in Windsor – should be willing to undertake.

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