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T-Mobile data cap cut faces consumer group attack

Which? and Consumer Focus have accused T-Mobile of forgetting that many of its smartphone users only joined the operator because of the high data-use limit that it will shortly reduce by up to 83 percent
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

The consumer association Which? has criticised T-Mobile's reduction in its fair-use limit for smartphone data usage, pointing out that the move may break the operator's own terms and conditions.

T-Mobile data use cap cut

T-Mobile has been criticised for cutting data usage limits for smartphone users. Photo credit: Gadget Virtuoso

Meanwhile, Ofcom has suggested that it could investigate the change in T-Mobile's terms and conditions if the regulator receives a sufficient number of complaints regarding the matter. An Ofcom spokesperson told ZDNet UK on Tuesday that "some complaints" had been received, but did not specify how many.

The rights group Consumer Focus has also weighed in, arguing that many of T-Mobile's customers will be "rightly angry" at the operator reducing its data allowance in the middle of their contract terms. "T-Mobile would not cut the number of minutes a person gets in this way, and internet access should be no different," Consumer Focus digital communications chief Robert Hammond told ZDNet UK on Tuesday. "Mobile companies should stick to the promises they make when customers take out a contract."

In a blog post on Tuesday, Which? Mobile said T-Mobile was selling smartphones built for video streaming and downloading, but then telling its customers that they should not use the devices for these purposes. The group also pointed out that T-Mobile had given "little notice" of the changes in its terms, and some customers had received no notification at all, "which may be in breach of T-Mobile's terms and conditions".

"Telling customers to save video for home broadband is a bit like giving a child a Buzz Lightyear toy but banning them from using Buzz's rocket pack," Which? Mobile's Ceri Stanaway said in the post. "One of the key selling points of large-screened smartphones like the HTC Desire HD or the iPhone 4 — the ability to watch video, like YouTube — will be severely curtailed. T-Mobile customers who took out their deal assuming they'd have access to enough data to download, stream and watch online video to their heart's content have a right to feel aggrieved."

T-Mobile announced the changes in a support note that went online over the weekend, telling its customers that its mobile broadband and 'internet on your phone' services were not for watching videos or downloading files. "If you want to download, stream and watch video clips, save that stuff for your home broadband," the note stated.

Telling customers to save video for home broadband is a bit like giving a child a Buzz Lightyear toy but banning them from using Buzz's rocket pack.
– Ceri Stanaway, Which? Mobile

Android phones
The operator said it would, from 1 February, be reducing its fair-use cap to 500MB. Customers who do not have Android phones will see their cap halved from 1GB a month. Those who do have devices based on Google's mobile operating system will experience an 83 percent drop from 3GB a month.

Android-using customers have had a higher limit because their contracts have automatically included a T-Mobile 'booster' called 'internet on your phone Plus'. From 1 February, those wanting this add-on will have to pay an extra £5 per month for the privilege of having a 1GB rather than 500MB cap. At the time of writing, T-Mobile was still advertising its Android phones as having a 3GB cap.

Which? said in its post that T-Mobile was forgetting that "the very reason many people bought Android phones from the operator was because of its 3GB fair-use policy, allowing them to use their smartphones in the way they were intended to be used".

T-Mobile does not charge its customers for exceeding the fair-use limit, but the company told ZDNet UK on Monday that it does throttle streaming and downloading for such users. However, that does not tally with the advice given to ZDNet UK by a T-Mobile customer services representative on Tuesday. The representative said that those surpassing the limit will have the speed of their entire connections throttled between the hours of 4pm and midnight. This would effectively make video streaming unusable, but it would also affect all web browsing.

In a statement sent to ZDNet UK on Tuesday, Stanaway said the cut was superficially "no worse and arguably better" than O2's changes in 2010, when that operator put a 500MB cap on all usage, but T-Mobile's reduction raised its own concerns.

"Unlike O2, T-Mobile is still claiming its deal is unlimited — which it clearly isn't," Stanaway said. "And also unlike O2, T-Mobile appears to be giving its customers next to no notice and is imposing the changes for existing customers as well as new customers."

Ofcom advice
The telecoms regulator Ofcom told ZDNet UK on Monday that, "if consumers are being notified of a change likely to cause them material detriment, the provider must give the customer one month's notice of the change, and at the same time they must also inform the customer of their right to terminate their contract without penalty if the proposed change is not acceptable to the customer".

As the changes take effect from 1 February, T-Mobile has given less than one month's notice.

"We encourage unhappy consumers to speak with their provider about their concerns," Ofcom's spokesperson said. "If the problem relates to a particular term or condition that you feel is unfair, then you can log your complaint with Ofcom. We monitor complaints about the behaviour of communications providers and if there is a high volume of complaints about a particular issue, we do investigate and take action as required."

ZDNet UK has asked T-Mobile whether it will allow its customers to terminate their contracts as a result of its change in terms, but had not received an answer at the time of writing. Similarly, the operator has not explained why it is limiting its customers' data usage when rival 3 — with which T-Mobile shares its 3G network — is offering its customers genuinely unlimited data.

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