AT&T to Throttle Heavy Mobile Data Users with "Unlimited" Data Plans

On July 29, 2011, AT&T surreptitiously announced it would reduce throughput for the top 5 percent of their heaviest mobile data users in a billing period. These customers falling into this highest mobile data use group on average use 12 times more data than the average of other smartphone data customers. The move does not apply to the 15 million AT&T smartphone customers on a tiered data plan nor to most smartphone customers who still have unlimited data plans. 

AT&T wrote: “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.”

In announcing this new policy, AT&T said that “nothing short” of wrapping up its T-Mobile merger “will provide additional spectrum capacity to address these near term challenges.”

Streaming video apps, remote Web camera apps, uploading large data files like video and some online gaming as well as streaming music daily over a wireless network can ratchet up data use and may push a customer into the top 5 percent category. The company pointed out that users of its Wi-Fi network do not contribute to the wireless network congestion.  That’s because the WiFi backhaul normally uses a broadband wireless Internet connection.

The new data throttling will begin Oct. 1st for AT&T customers with unlimited data plans. Customers will experience reduced data transfer speeds once they reach a level that pushes them into the top 5 percent of heaviest data users. Unlimited transfers will continue to be available, although at a reduced speed, and speeds will be restored with the beginning of the next billing cycle.

Points to Ponder: We wonder whether heavy mobile data users will balk when they notice a significant slowdown or buffer underrun in streaming video or other real time applications.  Will they then switch to tiered data plans and pay substantially more in overcharges?