AT&T clarifies who will be data-throttled—and it likely won't be you

Consumer Reports News: March 02, 2012 11:08 AM

AT&T yesterday issued a welcome clarification of just which of its wireless customers with unlimited data plans are at risk of having their service slowed—or “throttled”—after they reach a certain data limit for the month. Meantime, detailed information on just how much data “unlimited” AT&T customers use suggests that the vast majority are unlikely to be dinged with a data slowdown under the new rules.

AT&T now says that service will be slowed only to unlimited customers who consume more than 3 gigabytes of data during a month. That’s the data limit for the company’s $30-a-month data plan.

The clarification follows a period during which the company was sending warnings of impending throttling to some users who were using less than 3 GB, and were paying the same $30 for their unlimited plans. (Such plans are no longer available for new AT&T accounts, but customers who had them when the company shifted to metered plans had the option to keep them.)

The warnings spurred a firestorm from some customers who received them. Especially angry were some who received the messages despite usage that was below the 3 GB level, since those folks were paying AT&T just as much as customers with a metered plan with that same limit. To Parul Desai, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, the move seemed more like an effort to “squeeze consumers into limited data plans” than to address supposed runaway data usage.

The coup de gråce for AT&T's pursuit of sub-3GB users was its recent loss of a small claims court case in which a California student was awarded $850 after AT&T throttled his service, beginning, he said, when he had used between 1.5 and 2 GB in a month.

So how much should the typical AT&T unlimited customer worry about being throttled under the new rules? Probably not a lot. Data-usage information from Validas, a company that gathers and analyses wireless usage, shows that only around 5 per cent of AT&T customers, metered or not, use more than 2 GB of data a month—with fewer than 1 percent using 5GB or more.

Those stats might make it all the more galling to some that the company chased after the relatively tiny slice of its unlimited users that were exceeding 2 GB of data usage a month. And perhaps all the more understandable that AT&T was the least-satisfying carrier for customer service in our latest Ratings of cell-phone service, available to subscribers.

Info For Smartphone Customers with Unlimited Data Plans [AT&T]

Paul Reynolds

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