AT&T Prepares to Throttle Unlimited Data Plans for Smartphones

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Before you head happily off into the weekend, we’ve got some sour news for those of us grandfathered in to AT&T’s unlimited data plan for smartphones. Starting on October 1st, the top 5% of AT&T data users will have their connection speeds greatly reduced.

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According to AT&T’s press release, this move is a response to their networks being overtaxed by the proliferation of streaming video, music, and gaming on mobile devices. Once the new plan kicks in, the users who suck down the most data in a billing cycle will find their speeds reduced. AT&T assures users that this will not affect any of the tiered plan users, and most (95%) of the unlimited data users will be unaffected. They also promise ample notice prior to throttling, and a grace period, presumably to let you change your wicked ways.

Far from a total lock-down, this plan is surprisingly nuanced. Interestingly, because the plan is based off how much data is used per month, the amount of data you need to consume to make it onto the list will increase each month. AT&T acknowledges this in their press release, saying:

The amount of data usage of our top 5 percent of heaviest users varies from month to month, based on the usage of others and the ever-increasing demand for mobile broadband services. To rank among the top 5 percent, you have to use an extraordinary amount of data in a single billing period.

This is a somewhat comforting caveat, since it acknowledges the market’s movement and AT&T’s responsibility to keep up with user demand. This makes their throttling scheme seem like more of an attempt to keep growth at what they believe to be a sustainable level while they upgrade their networks to keep pace. That is, if you’re not a burnt-out cynical husk of a human being like me and believe that AT&T is actually doing anything to improve their networks.

Beyond this concession to the growing hunger for mobile data, it’s worth noting that AT&T has not flat-out killed their unlimited plans, nor do they charge for extra usage. Considering that additional charges are a common practice for overages on voice or text messaging services, and the brutal, brutal spectre of usage-based billing, it’s another point in AT&T’s favor.

That said, it’s still irritating. In their press release, AT&T says that this new approach was fasciliated by (gasp!) people using the Internet!

Typically what puts someone in the top 5 percent is streaming very large amounts of video and music daily over the wireless network, not Wi-Fi. Streaming video apps, remote web camera apps, sending large data files (like video) and some online gaming are examples of applications that can use data quickly.

This feels an awful lot like a bait-and-switch. The public was sold on mobile devices because they could play games, watch movies, and have a robust computing experience from anywhere. Now, it’s being suggested that these behaviors are somehow selfish and irresponsible. It’s also a bit of a slap in the face to users that opted to keep their unlimited data plans because they knew they needed unlimited data and were willing to pay for that privilege.

What’s more, their press release adds insult to injury by signing off with this whopper:

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.

Does this mean that my data plan is really just a pawn in AT&T’s merger game? Maybe not, but it’s still an awfully petty note to end on, and one that undercuts the legitimacy of their argument. You sure know how to make a guy feel loved, AT&T!

(AT&T via Gizmodo)

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