AT&T Data Throttling Is Just a Political Stunt

AT&T has confirmed that it will start throttling download speeds for unlimited data accounts. The move will involve relatively few users, and may be more political than technical, but it also raises the question "who is going to keep any eye on AT&T to make sure they measure usage accurately and don't abuse the throttling?"

AT&T plans to throttle the data speed for the top five percent of data consumers--with a few significant caveats. The throttling only impacts users still grandfathered on the extinct unlimited mobile data plan, and it doesn't count or throttle data over Wi-Fi, just the data consumed over AT&T's wireless data network.

AT&T will start throttling excessive consumption on unlimited data plans.
A press release from AT&T explaining the policy change states, "Using Wi-Fi doesn't create wireless network congestion or count toward your wireless data usage. AT&T smartphone customers have unlimited access to our entire Wi-Fi network, with more than 26,000 hotspots, at no additional cost. They can also use Wi-Fi at home and in the office."

AT&T seems to go out of its way to stress just how few users will be affected by this change. It will not apply to users on the tiered data plans. It will only affect a tiny, small, minuscule number of unlimited data plan users--just the five percent who consume as much as 12 times the average wireless data customer.

Something doesn't seem to add up, though. Either AT&T is exaggerating the impact of this 5 percent and making a spectacle out of the policy change as a political move to justify the case for why it "needs" the T-Mobile acquisition approved, or AT&T is not being completely honest with regard to how many users will be affected or what the impact will be.

AT&T has a history of both supporting and battling the concept of net neutrality and FCC oversight. Its words say that net neutrality is unnecessary, and that market pressure is sufficient for the industry to police itself without a government framework defining what is acceptable. However, its actions have repeatedly demonstrated for consumers exactly why a net neutrality framework is vital.

If AT&T is allowed to throttle data speeds based on consumption, how do we determine that AT&T is accurately measuring consumption? AT&T is facing at least one class-action lawsuit related to alleged "phantom data usage" and systematic overcharging of customers. It seems that there at least needs to be some sort of policy or certification that ensures the data usage is measured consistently and accurately.

Ultimately, though, the actual throttling does seem to affect an exceptionally small pool of AT&T customers. It still seems more like political theater than an actual data bandwidth issue.

The final statement of the AT&T press release regarding the data throttling policy supports that theory as well: "But even as we pursue this additional measure, it will not solve our spectrum shortage and network capacity issues. Nothing short of completing the T-Mobile merger will provide additional spectrum capacity to address these near term challenges."

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