AT&T speed and data greed: Throttling limits on 'unlimited' data users

AT&T speed and data greed: Throttling limits on 'unlimited' data users

Summary: AT&T has -- at long last -- opened up about its mobile data limits for its "unlimited" plans. How unlimited are these plans, and are the limits fair?

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AT&T has explained and clarified how "unlimited" its unlimited mobile data plans are.

The company said that HSPA+ users who use more than 3GB per month, and 4G LTE users who rack up more than 5GB per month, will find that their speeds will be throttled after the limit is reached, and a text message warning is issued.

The mobile giant, currently the second largest in the United States, manages to advertise and get away with "unlimited" plans in its marketing material because it does in fact offer no limits on how much data you can consume. It does, on the other hand, limit data speeds after a user reaches a certain point.

Arguably, that is.

Speeds will return to normal after the billing cycle is over, which is often the next calendar month.

But the courts didn't agree. AT&T recently lost a case in a California small claims court after the mobile giant was forced to pay a subscriber $850 in costs. AT&T was found to be "improperly" limiting the user's mobile download speeds when they were paying for an unlimited tariff.

It makes sense for AT&T, like other networks, to limit the data speeds of its users when they reach a certain amount. The very most will never reach the limits, as the network highlights that 95 percent of its customers will not be affected.

As AT&T has well over 100 million subscribers, and 17 million customers on "unlimited" data plans. This means at least 850,000 users will be affected. It's a lot of people, but still in the minority.

The heaviest smartphone data users are within the typical Generation Y bracket of aged 25--34, and use on average 580MB of data per month, according to analytics firm Neilsen.

Still, at least on the bright side, we have a major company buckling under pressure from its customers. It's not often you see a well-established, non-startup company actively respond to requests from its user base.

Whether or not you think it's fair, AT&T has at least --- at last --- been transparent about its opaque and hazy data caps. It's far from an "unlimited" service to what the public would expect, but it's a lot of space to manoeuvre. And that's coming from someone who just spent $215 in seven days on data costs while roaming abroad.

Image source: Josh Lowensohn/CNET.

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Topics: AT&T, Hardware, Mobility, Wi-Fi

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35 comments
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  • Be real AT&T!

    If you can't give the customer what they pay for you need to start turning away customers until you can fix the problem. As much money as people pay a month for your service you should bend over backwards for them, not make fake excuses for not putting more into your systems. Get it together! There are multiple other choices out there and even some wireless internet companies along with voip services using them will steal your thunder if you don't fix it. We are in 2012 and over $100 dollars a month for a phone and a 3 gigs don't cut it.
    REALROBLAW
    • Capping speeds is a necessity

      AT&T was simply naive when they introduced and priced the unlimited plans. These were driven by the introduction of the iPhone which most people did not believe would ever succeed. They did not appreciate what a revolution in mobile computing they would generate.

      Capacity is not free. AT&T and Verizon and their smaller competitors have spent $billions to put infrastructure in place and will need to spend $billions more to meet growing demand. If you think that they are so profitable, just buy their shares and watch them soar. Oops, shouldn't give bad investment advice.

      AT&T will have to find a way to correct their original pricing error and move to a staggered pay for usage model. In the mean time, limiting speeds of excessively high users in order to protect the access vast majority of normal users makes perfect sense.
      jorjitop
      • Yes

        Agreed, thank you. Do most people in this country not know how a business runs? Truly sad?
        MichaelWells
      • So anyone that signs a bad contact can just tear it up?

        So anyone that signs a bad contact can just tear it up? All the wired ISPs made the same mistake, signing up as many customers as possible, then calling its busiest customers "Data Hogs" and cutting them off. Those Dirty Damned Data Hogs!

        The wireless companies should have known better, but they were in such a rush to sign up customers, they didn't care. Now they want to break their own contracts, and we are supposed to agree that that is a good way to run a business? I do not. They wouldn't tolerate customers throttling their payments, now would they?

        If your mortgage company signs you up at only 1% interest, then 2 years later they aren't making enough money, should they be allowed to tear up your mortgage and make you pay higher rates? Sure, you could go to another bank, but you shouldn't have to because you had a contract. Sure, you can switch to another phone company, but you shouldn't have to because you have a contract.

        (And who would you switch to? All the other phone companies did the same thing, and are trying to breach their contracts as well.)
        mlashinsky
  • FTC Should Step In

    If there's a limit, it's not unlimited. It's false advertising, plain and simple.
    cadaholic1
    • Agreed.

      Oh, it would be nice if those that disagree state their case to get a conversation going. Why would your comment be knocked down, but nobody bothering to describe why they would disagree?
      HypnoToad72
  • Hate to say this, but . . .

    Hate to say this, but - I seriously don't want to see unlimited plans go away. And I'd much rather be throttled than shut off completely, or pay exorbitant overage fees.

    I'm fine with throttling - in fact, I think that some sort of bandwidth shaping is likely to be the best way to go about handling all of the traffic.

    That being said - the bandwidth should just be shaped, period. Forget all of the monthly junk, just shape the bandwidth on a continuous basis. Give me a flat fee, and throttle me during peak usage, not at the end of the month.
    CobraA1
    • Mostly agree

      I'm mostly in agreement. When the carriers were removing the unlimited plans this was my repeated sentiment, that unlimited, with throttling for MAJOR abusers was the best option. I don't like to be limited, primarily because I have far too many other important things to keep track of in my life (very self important here). The worst part of these limits are that they're not based on any actual carrier limitations currently, they're imposed strictly for the purpose of increasing profits.

      I'm waiting for the day a logical savior carrier rises in this country with actual data capability limitations in place, freeing us from these stagnated and often backward moving changes. "The Cloud" keeps us online more and more these days, accessing, updating and streaming our content to our many devices. These limitations aren't helping this movement.

      I think for a month of "umlimited" service, with cloud apps, music and video streaming, and podcatching, 10 GBs of 4G LTE before throttling is a fine a break point. 5GB is still a bit too low.

      AT&T, stop giving us reasons to complain about you, you're losing the war.
      @...
      • Kinda missing the point in the last part . . .

        "'The Cloud' keeps us online more and more these days, accessing, updating and streaming our content to our many devices. These limitations aren't helping this movement."

        Agreed - it's not just apps I use specifically for accessing the internet, it's the increasing number of apps using data in the background. Push email, Dropbox and other sync apps, push notifications, etc. Even when I'm not doing much of anything at all, my phone is still actively using data.

        "I think for a month of 'umlimited' service, with cloud apps, music and video streaming, and podcatching, 10 GBs of 4G LTE before throttling is a fine a break point. 5GB is still a bit too low. "

        I think you missed my point, sigh.

        Cell phone towers aren't hard drives. They don't store data as MB or GB. That's pretty much an artificial thing created by the cell phone companies. There really is no need at all to meter bandwidth in this highly artificial manner.

        They're much more like broadband connections - the real measurement should be available bandwidth, not amount of data. It should be measured in MB/s, not GB/month!

        What they can do instead is to throttle the maximum bandwidth at peak times. That would effectively solve the problem of major abusers, and it's basically what cable companies already do. I really don't see why we need to stick to this highly artificial method of using monthly data caps.
        CobraA1
      • Didn't miss the point

        @Cobra1

        I didn't miss the point, I just didn't agree on your stance there, hence my "Mostly Agree" subject. I don't think shaping all traffic is the answer. Even as an IT Manager tasked with managing this at my own business I hate the concept of someone deciding for everyone what is and is not important, it just doesn't work.

        Also the idea of limiting by data usage, and not bandwidth is a real, proper method. It allows for overselling of bandwidth in a controlled manner. Otherwise you'd only be allocated 0.01 KBps given the number of people that would require a slice of the bandwidth at any given location. It's much more useful to limit the time the user is allowed to pull from the tower over the month, but since you can't control how saturated a tower's pipe will be (if it's running slow and screwing the user on amount of data accessed), the best method is data transferred over the month.

        Again, I don't like limitations and I'm willing to pay to not have them. I just wished they offered a plan that had truly unthrottled, unlimited usage.
        @...
      • Disagree

        "Otherwise you'd only be allocated 0.01 KBps given the number of people that would require a slice of the bandwidth at any given location."

        Totally false. Bandwidth shaping does not mean you divide it up 100% evenly, it means you control it on the fly. Most people will barely use the bandwidth at all, and you can certainly give the remaining bandwidth to those who demand it more.

        The current system absolutely does not help the problem. If I were to stream video, I'm using that bandwidth NOW, and all of the other customers are affected NOW. The radio signal doesn't meter the usage in some magical fashion. It's just electromagnetic waves.

        "Also the idea of limiting by data usage, and not bandwidth is a real, proper method."

        No, it isn't. There's nothing proper or real about it. Radio waves aren't monthly things - they're always there. The whole idea of metering is is EXTREMELY artificial and made up. In no way, shape, or form does it actually reflect how radio works.
        CobraA1
  • AT&T: Customer Goodwill

    takes a lifetime to build, and only minutes to destroy. I hope
    AT&T is able to figure a way out of this dilemma. Over-promising and under-delivering is probably not a reputation they want to foster. Craig Herberg
    Craig Herberg
    • Customer Goodwill

      Amen! Customer satisfaction is the whole story. They have given me poor service.
      Reggie S
    • Agreed

      The number of times I've had streaming videos from youtube being stiled and juttery... and coworkers in the same area, so it was not my phone... and, just like with a company that blamed the antenna problems it knew a long before their product launch on customers, AT&T pulled the same shtick on our complaints.

      A shame people who terminate the contract early have to pay because AT&T can't be bothered to put out a good service, but that's the system - nickel and dime the "customers"...

      AT&T sucks.
      HypnoToad72
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    JessicaS22
  • For 3G customers it throttles at 3GB?

    For 4G customers it throttles at 5GB? Then no it is NOT unlimited at all despite their claims and despite wordage on my contract.

    For you people who keep -1 posts that call AT&T greedy, that say that AT&T is not unlimited, that AT&T needs to be sued over this I want to know why. Why do you feel that AT&T is in the right here and why are you afraid to speak out over it?

    From Dictionary.com the definition of the word "unlimited":

    [i]un??lim??it??ed??? ???[uhn-lim-i-tid] Show IPA
    adjective
    1.
    not limited; unrestricted; unconfined: unlimited trade.
    2.
    boundless; infinite; vast: the unlimited skies.
    3.
    without any qualification or exception; unconditional.[/i]

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/unlimited

    So if the plan is unlimited as AT&T claims it was when it was purchased then WHY are there limits on the speed?
    athynz
    • unlimited was NEVER available

      At the very most data was available at 4G speeds. LIMITED to the max speed available on the network. So use of the term unlimited was incorrect from the very start.

      All of the "unlimited" plans from ALL carriers should therefore be immediately converted to x GB at y speeds and use of the word unlimited should be disallowed from ALL advertising, since nothing is truly unlimited except human stupidity. All customers currently enrolled in "unlimited" plans should be given the option to drop the plan without early termination fees (beyond paying for actual cost of the subsidized phone, or turning in the phone for credit).
      john-whorfin
      • Oh yeah, the carriers would love that...

        That is exactly what the carriers want, high usage customers to go away. They only want the lowest usage customers at the highest rates they can squeeze. The carriers forged these contracts and now they should live up to them.
        mlashinsky
  • It is ONLY 5%

    If it is only 5% of the people that are "using" too much bandwidth then ATT can absorb the use above 3 gigs.
    Grumpyzee
  • Still concerned

    At first it was the top 5%
    Then we find that includes all cell phones, not just smartphones
    Then its 5% in a users area with warnings based on projected usage
    Then its throttling at approx 2gb with speeds so slow nothing loads

    And now this.

    Be nice if AT&T could sent out an alert when the network is reaching critical congestion and to Cobras point, throttle during that period in that location.
    rhonin