AT&T Wireless Bandwidth Throttling: The Backlash Has Begun

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AT&T has begun throttling bandwidth speeds for its "unlimited" wireless data customers who gobble excessive amounts of data on their smartphones--just as it promised it would back in June. Now that the unlimited wireless bandwidth party is over, some unhappy AT&T customers are speaking up and crying foul.

Despite AT&T's assertion that throttling would only affect a tiny top 5 percent of data users some customers claim that the clampdown on wireless bandwidth appears to be affecting a larger portion of AT&T's 17 million wireless customer base. Among those who believe they are being throttled, some claim that AT&T's bandwidth restrictions are worse than those of other carriers. They also complain that AT&T is unclear about its throttling policy and that they are getting hosed by a new pricing scheme.

AT&T isn't unique in moving away from all-you-can-eat data plans and pushing customers toward tiered service plans. Verizon, T-Mobile, and others in the wireless industry have ditched unlimited plans as well. And they, too, have faced customer backlashes.

AT&T Undocumented Limits

For the record, AT&T has stated in the media that if you use more than 2GB of wireless data per month you fall into the 5 percent of its customers who may be subject to throttling. An AT&T representative confirmed the limit but said that exceeding 2GB of data is no guarantee that you'll be throttled. AT&T told the New York Times that whether the action it takes under the throttling policy will actually slow users' wireless data speeds depends on the individuals' usage patterns and on the immediate availability of network capacity or spectrum.

Unfortunately, AT&T doesn't make this point clear on its site, which leaves many customers in the dark. We did find a footnote linked to the old Unlimited plan on the AT&T site, but it directed us to new data plans instead of to a new policy. When we called customer support, an AT&T spokesperson said that she didn't have any information about what new limits the Unlimited plan imposed, and she directed us back to the AT&T site.

In contrast, Verizon offers explicit guidance on its throttling policy, as do wireless carriers such as T-Mobile.

Pricing Conundrum

AT&T's existing Unlimited customers are grandfathered into the carrier's $30-per-month Unlimited plan and are limited (theoretically) to 2GB of wireless data transfers per month. After that, AT&T significantly reduces its transfer speeds, according to user feedback.

Separately, AT&T offers a $30-a-month plan for 3GB of data downloads. That option has some customers griping: "that's one gigabyte more than the 'unlimited plan' allows before AT&T considers you among the top five percent of its 'heavy users' subject to a punishing speed throttle."

It hardly seems fair to charge two groups of users the same amount for two different data caps (even if one of them isn't technically a cap). The only silver lining here might be that Unlimited customers won't face nasty surprise "overage fees."

Chart courtesy of Computerworld

Unfair Throttling

As if pricing and policy issues weren't enough, a growing chorus of AT&T customers now insist that they are seeing data throttling before they reach the 2GB limit. AT&T customers have been chiming in at popular venues such as John Cozen's blog and the site Cult of Mac. Commenters at both sites insist they are seeing throttling of their AT&T wireless speeds after as little as 1.5GB of data consumption.

Of course, in the absence of any independent verification of these claims, they could be a widespread case of sour grapes.

Last Holdout

Not all phone carriers limit user data, however. Sprint famously allows unlimited data without restrictions. Yes, Sprint is in fourth place among the big four carriers, but its policy still makes AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon seem like cheapskates.

(PCWorld's Tom Spring contributed to this report)

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