AT&T's Data Crackdown: I'm Calling a Bluff

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AT&T is huffing and puffing about limiting the data consumption of smartphone users and educating them on the meaning of a megabyte. Yet we know nothing about the carrier's actual plans.

That's why I'm calling it now: This is a bluff. AT&T and Mobility and Consumer Markets chief executive Ralph de la Vega are trying to scare us, and the Federal Communications Commission, into leaving all wireless carriers alone.

Remember that in September, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski called for formal net neutrality rules, essentially requiring that all legal Internet uses be treated equally. He said those rules should apply to the mobile Internet as well. In the wireless world, that would mean whether you're streaming YouTube videos, talking on Skype, or checking e-mail, your carrier has to give you the same connection speed.

As the FCC opens its rulemaking process, AT&T, other carriers, and industry backers have argued that net neutrality shouldn't apply to them, because wireless bandwidth is scarce compared to wired bandwidth. The argument is of course quite nuanced, but here's the important takeaway for today's news: Some analysts believe that if carriers aren't allowed manage high-bandwidth users on their networks, those carriers will curtail usage by charging extra for heavy data consumption.

You'll have a hard time finding an iPhone customer who favors this idea, so I don't think AT&T's talk of restricting data usage is a plan so much as it is a threat: Force net neutrality upon AT&T, and AT&T will take it out on customers.

But will that actually happen? After all, bandwidth caps won't necessarily solve AT&T's network problems. If I can only consume, say, 5 GB per month, I can still clog up the network by talking on Skype while everyone around me is watching YouTube and streaming Internet radio. And as I said before, AT&T hasn't announced anything except a desire for its customers to stop doing so much on their iPhones.

That's why I'm calling bluff on de la Vega's comments. I'm not saying that way down the line, AT&T won't put a cap on the heaviest of heavy users, something to stop people from streaming audio and video 24 hours per day. But I don't buy the idea that all 3 percent of AT&T customers who fill 40 percent of network capacity will some day be paying additional premiums beyond their already pricey data plans.

If I'm wrong, then de la Vega and AT&T can put their cards on the table.

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