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The Limits of “Unlimited Data”?

When I got my first iPhone, they were only available trough AT&T. Easy enough, since AT&T was already my cellular carrier. That was back when AT&T offered an unlimited data plan for $30 per month. Some time after that, as smartphone use exploded, AT&T offered a tiered data plan — 3GB of data per month, for $30 per month. Folks like me, with unlimited plans, were grandfathered in.

Then I began to notice that with every new feature AT&T rolled out for the iPhone — from tethering to hotspot capability — there was one catch involved: in order to sign up for the new services, I’d have to give up my unlimited data plan. I was tempted, I admit. The idea of being able to use my iPhone to connect my laptop to the internet, during times when wifi was out of unavailable, appealed to me. But those times were so rare (and are even rarer now) that I couldn’t see giving up my unlimited plan.

I understood what AT&T was trying to do, of course. It’s just business. More people using smartphones, plus more and more data-hungry apps (Netflix, for example), meant that mobile carriers had greater costs and network issues to consider. The more customers like me could be coaxed away from our unlimited data plans, the better for AT&T and its network.

Coaxing is one thing. Throttling, is another.

“Throttling,” which basically means putting limits on “unlimited data” plans, is a far cry from coaxing grandfathers users like myself onto the tiered plan. Mike Trang, a property manager in California, would probably agree that it doesn’t feel like coaxing.


The reason: AT&T considers Trang to be among the top 5 percent of the heaviest cellular data users in his area. Under a new policy, AT&T has started cutting their data speeds as part of an attempt to manage data usage on its network.

So last month, AT&T “throttled” Trang’s iPhone, slowing downloads by roughly 99 percent. That means a Web page that would normally take a second to load instead took almost two minutes.

AT&T has some 17 million customers with “unlimited data” plans that can be subject to throttling, representing just under half of its smartphone users. It stopped signing up new customers for those plans in 2010, and warned last year that it would start slowing speeds for people who consume the most data.

What’s surprising people like Trang is how little data use it takes to reach that level sometimes less that AT&T gives people on its “limited” plans.

Trang’s iPhone was throttled just two weeks into his billing cycle, after he’d consumed 2.3 gigabytes of data. He pays $30 per month for “unlimited” data. Meanwhile, Dallas-based AT&T now sells a limited, or “tiered,” plan that provides 3 gigabytes of data for the same price.

Users report that if they call the company to ask or complain about the throttling, AT&T customer support representatives suggest they switch to the limited plan.

iphone usage stats“They’re coaxing you toward the tiered plan,” said Gregory Tallman in Hopatcong, N.J. He hasn’t had his iPhone 4S throttled yet, but he’s gotten text-messages from AT&T, warning that he’s approaching the limit. This came after he had used just 1.5 gigabytes of data in that billing cycle.

Throttling? I’ve heard of ISPs doing this with heaving users, but this is first I’ve heard of AT&T doing it. But just because I haven’t heard about it doesn’t mean its news. Apparently, AT&T announced last July that it would start throttling the top 5% of its users beginning October 1 of last year.

AT&T, meanwhile, stressed that the move would affect only a small minority of its customer base and is designed to improve the experience for the rest of its users. But the move is sure to elicit a strong reaction from customers who are used to their unlimited data plans. “These customers on average use 12 times more data than the average of all other smartphone data customers,” AT&T said in a statement.

AT&T said it would send several notices and offer a grace period to its heaviest users before throttling them. The customers will have their speeds restored at the beginning of the next billing cycle.

Throttling effectively turns your phone into a paperweight.

I’m not sure what these folks are doing with their phones. Trang says he uses his as a GPS, while his younger cousins use it to play games and watch youtube videos. I guess, then, it doesn’t take much to use upwards of 2GB or more of data. The problem is that no one outside of AT&T knows what the threshold is.

<p>
I've never even gotten a warning from AT&T, so I guess I haven't even reached 1.5 GB in a billing cycle. I never even <em>look</em> at my usage level, but decided to check after reading the article above. With just two days left in my current billing cycle, I've only used 564.97 MB of data. An analysis of my usage over the past six months shows that 564.97 MB to be pretty high for me. My next highest usage for one billing period was 501.2 MB. The lowest-usage in the same period was about 211.06 MB. 
</p>
<p>
    Maybe that's because most of the time when I use my phone to access the internet, I'm using wifi at home or at work, or wherever I happen to be that has wifi available. (At this point, even our grocery store offers wifi.) Out of wifi range, I might use it to check email or facebook, or send a few text messages, but usually not much more. I tend to use it for offline reading, but that doesn't tax the network much if I download my stuff while I'm still using wifi.</p> 

    <p>Likewise, for video and music. I've watched a few TV episodes on my phone, but I downloaded them to watch offline, saving streaming for when I'm in wifi range. I don't have any music on my iPhone. It's all on my iPod. I use my phone as an iPod, because it doesn't have enough storage. I don't use Spotify, though I do have an account. And if I'm using Pandora, I'm sitting at my desk at work or at home and using  the <a style="text-decoration: none" href="http://www.getcloudstorage.net/"><font color="#555555">best cloud storage providers</font></a>.
</p>
<p>
    So, if there's a method to the madness, AT&T is only throttling users who go above some unknown and perhaps arbitrary usage level. Maybe location figures into it as well, making heavy users in densely populated areas where higher numbers of smartphone tax mobile networks more heavily.
</p>

What happened to “unlimited data”? The article suggests that “unlimited” could refer to the amount of data, having nothing to do with the speed at which it’s transferred. So, AT&T could simply say, “Of course you can access all the data you want, but after a certain amount you’ll have to access it at a lower speed.”

Tallman sees few prospects for a lawsuit against AT&T. The company is still providing unlimited data usage to throttled customers, even if the speeds are so low as to make the phone useless for anything but phone calls and text messages. The company made no promises that “unlimited” data would always be coupled with high speeds, he notes.

“They just guaranteed the highway. They didn’t guarantee the speed limit,” he said.

Still, if the limit for tiered plans is 3 GB per month, I’m not sure why AT&T is throttling customers who haven’t yet reached 3.0 GB, except to more aggressively “coax” those customers onto the tiered plan? Let’s face it. The unlimited plan is a better deal for customers than it is for AT&T. After all, heavy users with unlimited plans don’t get charged overage fees for exceeding the 3 GB per month limit for customers on the tiered plan.

I guess is that, at least for customers in top 5%, AT&T will probably make it so frustrating to keep their unlimited plans that they’ll make the switch to the tiered plan and either use less data or pony up for whatever exceeds the monthly limit.

Where does that leave me? Given my usage levels, I’m far from being in the top 5%, so I’m probably the least of AT&T’s worries.

<p>
    I could probably move to the tiered plan and not notice much difference, given how much data I use. That would allow me to activate features like hotspot and tethering. But those are both data-using features, and ones I've managed to live quite happily without thus far. If I had them, I'm sure I'd find reasons to use them. But I clearly don't need them.</p>
</p>    So, I don't have much of an incentive to move to the tiered plan, unless AT&T decides to phase it out entirely. But I'm not among the customers they want to incentivize over to the tiered plan. After all, I've never yet reached the limits of my "unlimited plan."

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