AT&T data throttling and the great customer ripoff

AT&T data throttling and the great customer ripoff

Summary: AT&T is slowing unlimited data customers to a crawl when they hit a mysterious unspecified monthly data usage level. Doesn't sound so unlimited, does it?


Not too long ago AT&T began sending iPhone customers text messages notifying them they were using what the carrier considered too much data. These customers were owners of unlimited data plans, normally a plan that would be safe from hitting a cap.

AT&T told the customers if they remained in the top 5 percent of data users in their particular area they would throttle speeds for the rest of that billing period. True to its word, customers started seeing bandwidth drop to the point of being largely unusable.

Dwight Silverman of the Houston Chronicle has a good overview of what AT&T is doing, along with how the other carriers are handling similar situations. It's not good no matter how you look at it.

Last year AT&T moved most customers to a tiered data plan with a paid data cap. Once the monthly cap is exceeded, overage fees apply for any data used over the cap. Customers with an existing unlimited plan were grandfathered in, and it's clear AT&T didn't like that one bit. The throttling is a direct result of the carrier's trying to force unlimited customers onto a "more reasonable" tiered monthly plan.

As if the throttling wasn't chicken enough, AT&T refuses to tell the customers how much data they are allowed before getting lousy dial-up speeds imposed. According to AT&T they are throttling the top 5 percent of data users in a given area. That definition is meaningless to the customers affected, as it's up to AT&T to determine when a given user enters the top 5 percent club. One day you're not in the top 5, the next you are. I've heard from quite a few who have been throttled, and the magic data number seems to be around 2.1 GB of data usage when the dreaded throttling kicks in.

It seems to me this constitutes a drastic change in the terms of contract the customers have with AT&T. How much more can a contract change than from unlimited to a random cap that triggers throttling? According to those I've spoken with the throttling is so severe it renders the iPhone virtually unusable for most things due to the horribly slow speeds. If that's not a change of contract terms I don't know what is.

I'm not a lawyer but I would think these throttled customers could cancel their service with AT&T without an early termination fee. The problem is if they did, what could they then do? It's not like they can just take the iPhone to any other carrier. Both Verizon and Sprint networks are CDMA networks so AT&T iPhones won't work. Sadly, the only real alternative to eliminate the worry of throttling is to cave in to AT&T and switch to a capped plan. At least they'd know how much data they get before having to worry. According to those who have complained to the carrier they've basically been told to lump it.

What AT&T is doing is particularly offensive if you put it in perspective. Imagine you rent a car that comes with unlimited mileage. You drive it for a few days and then suddenly it will only do a top speed of 30 mph no matter what you do. When you contact the rental agency they tell you that you have already driven enough miles to be in the top 5 percent of rental customers in your area, so they have throttled the car's top speed. You're stuck the rest of the month puttering along, for the same cost as other customers speeding on the freeway. When you complain you're given the option of giving the car back and going somewhere else. Not a great position to find yourself in, yet that's exactly what AT&T customers are facing.

This situation makes me happy with my Verizon iPhone plan with a 4 GB cap plus 2 GB of additional hotspot data. That's costing me $40 monthly, which is turning into a real bargain compared to the AT&T $30 "unlimited" plan.

Have you been throttled by AT&T? Let us hear from you in the comments. At what data level did the throttling kick in, how slow it is, etc.


Topic: AT&T

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  • Rumpelstilstkin impression?

    Another ZDNET blogger wakes up to reality: when oh when are these 'experts' going to realise that global corporations are in it for themselves? Probably, like consumer protection bodies, after it's too late ... and then expecting (hoping/praying) the Government will do something about it ... add on another 10 years to get round the bribes (sorry, legitimate lobby contributions) and allow for administration inertia.

    Why isn't there widespread opposition to such tactics in the media?

    We need concerted pressure (a la SOPA) to slowly take back everything these corporations have already, and intend in future, to take.

    Wake up ZDNET!!
    • With the current deadlock in Congress?

    • RE: AT&T data throttling and the great customer ripoff

      @johnfenjackson@... You guys are all mistaken. Your not being throttled, this is ATT's new high speed LTE service kicking in LOL.
      • Close

        I only started receiving the warning once I switched to LTE.
        My avg data usage has not changed but the restrictions are sure in.....
    • RE: AT&T data throttling and the great customer ripoff

      I'm looking forward to the class action lawsuit that's bound to happen. I'm sure there are lawyers out there looking to collect millions of dollars for minimal work.
      • RE: AT&T data throttling and the great customer ripoff

        Sign me up!
    • RE: AT&T data throttling and the great customer ripoff

      @johnfenjackson@... How is this ZDNet's fault?

      WAKE UP AT&T CUSTOMERS!!! You're the only ones who can stop this...
  • Anyone who sticks with them is a total fool

    Youre getting what you deserve.
    • True and Not

      I originally switched from Verizon because they were nickel and diming me to death and they consider the entire Carribean as international. Not much CDMA in the EU either....
      With AT&T I have roll-over, my bill really doesn't change and the Carribean is mostly the USA from a usage perspective.

      And now we have this....
      • Nickel and Diming Stinks

        I used to be on ATT but didn't like the fact that my bill was different every month. Now I am with Solavei and my bill is exactly $58.03 every month, regardless of how much I use. I also like getting unlimited talk and text and 4 GB of data at 4G speeds before I get slowed down (haven't hit the cap once yet). The speed with my HTC One S Android is ridiculously fast. I compared to a guy with an iPhone 4S (4G) this weekend and my phone was loading pages 2-3 times as fast as his.
        If anyone wants really good service at a super price ($49 exclusive of tax, service), drop me a line at mobilefortyniner(at)g mail and I will gladly show you how.
        Best move I have ever made in the cell arena!
  • RE: AT&T data throttling and the great customer ripoff

    To be honest, I can't even hit 2GB of data in a month, and I'm on VZW's unlimited plan. I stream audio pretty much all day at work over 3G, but then I go home it switches over to my wifi. My brother-in-law has their 2GB/mon plan and he hasn't come close to hitting 1.5GB in a month, and he's streaming audio over 3G at work as well, in addition to using it at home to surf the web, emails, etc, like anyone else. I guess with home wifi it makes it easier, but if I didn't have home internet, I'd definitely shell out more per month for data.
    • RE: AT&T data throttling and the great customer ripoff

      @tw1975 The problem really is that the unlimited plan costs more than the 2 GB plan AT&T offers costs less than their old unlimited plan, but they're throttling people who use about 2 GB of data. As for data, I have unlimited and sometimes I'm under 2 GB, sometimes I'm over, depending on what I'm doing. Streaming audio for 40 hours a week is an easy 1GB data usage, without including anything else. Heaven forbid I decide to watch some youtube videos or read some comics.
      • RE: AT&T data throttling and the great customer ripoff

        @Aerowind I would love to be able to stream audio 40 hours a week on 3G. That's exactly why I wanted an unlimited cap. However, I'm in a particularly weird spot in my area and can barely get any data signal in my office. Consider yourself lucky.
      • GPS

        Heaven helpl if you use your phone as GPS when traveling....
    • RE: AT&T data throttling and the great customer ripoff

      @tw1975: You and your brother-in-law should be doing the work that your bosses pay you to do, instead of 'streaming' whatever is that you 'stream'. This looks you are stealing from your company.
      • RE: AT&T data throttling and the great customer ripoff

        @elmarioc You realize that many people listen to music while at work, right?
      • RE: AT&T data throttling and the great customer ripoff

        @elmarioc So you have an objection to streaming music? Dude can you possibly be a bigger tool?
      • RE: AT&T data throttling and the great customer ripoff


        I'm in an office, he's in construction. We both use a portable dock station, just have it playing Pandora throughout the day. Now you wrote you're reply yesterday afternoon, while surfing the internet at work I presume? lol

        Nice try. :-)
    • RE: AT&T data throttling and the great customer ripoff

      It's the principle, and past behaviour of the CellCo's that is the concern. If they stopped robbing people twice for Tethering, many would probably accept the above.

      If you started only being allowed one soda refill, how would you like that ? Same principle.
  • RE: AT&T data throttling and the great customer ripoff

    This is what happens when the only incentive to provide a service is PROFIT. These tiered plans with miniscule data allowances are not about congestion or network management. They are about profit, pure and simple, as if they don't make enough off the American consumer already.

    But, since capped is the way they operate now, AT&T should just remove the throttling on unlimited plans to quell the anger, and then simply terminate the grandfathering of these unlimited plans at end of current contract term or say 90 days if off contract with automatic transfer to comparably priced tiered plan. Problem solved. If the custimer doesn't want the plan change he is then free to go elsewhere (as if that would do any good).