AT&T Data Plan Lawsuit Could Stem from iOS Issue

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A lawsuit--seeking class action status--against AT&T alleges that the wireless service provider is systematically overcharging iPhone and iPad users for data usage. I understand the pain of those going for AT&T's throat, however the frustration might be misguided.

First, a little recap of the current situation. An AT&T customer by the name of Patrick Hendricks has filed a law suit in federal court in California alleging that AT&T is racking up bogus and phantom data charges and overbilling customers. Hendricks' lawyers have requested that the case be granted class action status so other disgruntled iPhone and iPad users can pile on.

The multitasking feature in iOS could be the cause of data usage confusion for AT&T customers.
I contacted an AT&T spokesperson regarding the law suit, and the response I received was, "Transparent and accurate billing is a top priority for AT&T. In fact, we've created tools that let our customers check their voice and data usage at any time during their billing cycle to help eliminate bill surprises. We have only recently learned of the complaint, but I can tell you that we intend to defend ourselves vigorously."

Fair enough. Like I said, though, I understand where this lawsuit is coming from. I have an iPhone 4. My wife has an iPhone 4. My son has an iPhone 3GS. I also own an iPad--but it is Wi-Fi only so AT&T isn't involved in my usage of that device. In the wake of the data plan shakeup at AT&T last year, I reviewed the historical data usage on my account(s) and switched my wife and son's data plans to the 200MB per month package. Over the course of the previous six months, neither had ever exceeded that amount of data.

I was--at least in my opinion--justifiably upset then, when these lines began to consistently exceed that 200MB limit, resulting in an additional charge of $15 for an additional 200MB of data. Granted, the resulting $30 a month is no more than I was previously paying for the unlimited data plan, so it wasn't a huge deal, but I still wanted to find out what was going on.

I reviewed the data usage on both lines and found massive data usage--20MB, 30MB, sometimes 50MB or more--being consumed at crazy hours like 3am in the morning. I addressed my concerns with AT&T, and what I was told is this. The data usage is not really tracked by AT&T in real-time. The iPhone or iPad logs the data usage throughout the day, and at some point in the middle of the night when all is quiet, that information is uploaded to AT&T.

That explained the massive data consumption all at once, but it didn't really explain the data usage overall. I work from home. My wife works from home. My son is home schooled. We rarely leave the house, which means we are connected to Wi-Fi rather than 3G 99 percent of the time, so none of our data usage should have any impact on the AT&T data plans.

After some trial and error experimentation trying to get to the bottom of the issue, it occurred to me that something else changed about the same time as AT&T dropped the unlimited data plan--Apple introduced multitasking to iOS. Do you know how many apps are running in the background right now on your iPhone or iPad? Basically, every app you have ever used. Go ahead. Double-tap the home button on your device and see just how many apps are active.

Many of those apps may be actively communicating and downloading data in the background. So, perhaps the data issues that users are seeing, and that AT&T is being accused of systematically overcharging for, are--at least in part--a function of the "virtues" of adding multitasking to iOS. I can tell you this: once we realized all of these apps were running and started manually shutting down all of the multitasking apps, my data usage issues went away.

Apple should consider tweaking iOS multitasking to discriminate more about which apps continue running in the background, or have a default timeout of some sort. I don't need every app I touch to continue running.

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