Thursday, November 27, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

AT&T (sort of) explains its wireless-data throttling

The wireless carrier still doesn't say exactly what it's doing. But at least it's making clear which customers are affected.

AT&T (sort of) explains its wireless-data throttling

AT&T Mobility has now clarified which customers are subject to the wireless-data throttling I described last week, though it still isn't explaining exactly what happens to them, or give a good reason why - other than that they have the temerity to think that "unlimited data" means what it says.

The bottom line: If you use less than 3 gigabytes of data per month on your iPhone or a similar device, or less than 5 gigabytes on an Android that runs on the speedier LTE network, there are no limits on your unlimited data.

But go past those limits, and you'll be throttled until the start of your next billing cycle.

How severely? AT&T still isn't saying - though it's also still not disputing reports of a 99 percent drop in speeds.  That may sound like an enormous reduction, but it's consistent with what T-Mobile has acknowledged doing to customers who pass the stated caps on its data plans: They still get data, but essentially at 2G speeds, not 4G. AT&T says its throttled customers will "still be able to email and surf the web."  Presumably you'll recognize them as they stare blankly at nearly blank screens, or mutter curses at a mute Siri.

T-Mobile says it wants its throttled customers to consider moving to a plan with higher limits.  AT&T implies that it wants them to move to tiered plans, and also that they're data hogs: In January, it says, "the top 5 percent of our unlimited data plan customers used an average of over 50 percent more data than the top 5 percent of customers on tiered plans."

Interestingly, that "50 percent more" statistic appears to conflict with 2011 data that I and others reported last week from Validas, a Texas company that reviews wireless bills for customers. But it's more likely just an example of how statistics can be spun.

Validas, which sampled more than 55,000 cell-phone bills, found that AT&T's unlimited-data customers used about 25 percent more data, on average, than customers on tiered plans.

So is usage really soaring? Maybe not.  Validas' sample examined the top 5 percent of all AT&T data customers - about 41.5 percent of them unlimited-data customers.  For its purposes, AT&T is comparing the top 5 percent of unlimited-data customers with the top 5 percent of customers on tiered plans - customers who face overage charges above prescribed limits.

However you slice the data, there's limited evidence that many people are grossly abusing the unlimited-data plans. Validas says the top 5 percent of AT&T's unlimited-data customers used an average of less than 4 gigabytes of data per month. Validas says just 0.7 percent of all AT&T smartphone customers used more than 5 gigabytes per month.

Data hogs? Perhaps they're just people who believe the word unlimited means what it usually does.

Here's AT&T's statement, provided via email:

With mobile data usage continuing to skyrocket and the availability of spectrum scarce, AT&T, like other wireless companies, manages its network in the fairest way possible so that we can provide the best possible mobile broadband experience for all our customers.
How we’re managing the network only affects a small minority of the heaviest smartphone data users still on unlimited plans. Put another way, this does not impact more than 95 percent of our smartphone customers
Our unlimited plan customers have told us they want more clarity around how the program works and what they can expect. Here’s what customers need to know:
* Customers with a 3G or 4G smartphone – who also still have our unlimited data plan – will see speeds reduced if they use 3GB (gigabytes) of data or more in a billing cycle. Speeds will return to normal at the start of the next billing cycle. For context, less than 5 percent of smartphone customers use more than 3GB per month.
* For customers with a 4G LTE smartphone – who also still have our unlimited data plan – data speeds will be reduced if usage is 5GB (gigabytes) or more in a billing cycle. Speeds will return to normal at the start of the next billing cycle.
Customers will get a text message from us before experiencing a change in speed.
Even with reduced data speeds, these customers will still be able to email and surf the web, and continue to use an unlimited amount of data each month.
Not impacted by this program, launched last year, are customers on our tiered data plans.
The reason reduced speeds only apply to unlimited smartphone customers is because their data usage is significantly higher than those on tiered plans. For example, in January, the top 5 percent of our unlimited data plan customers used an average of over 50 percent more data than the top 5 percent of customers on tiered plans.
Because spectrum is limited and data usage continues to soar, we manage our network this way to be as fair as possible and so we can provide the best possible mobile broadband experience to everyone.
We encourage all of our customers to use Wi-Fi whenever possible – especially when watching video, which is the most data-intensive activity.
That’s because data activity over Wi-Fi does not count against the threshold for unlimited customers that triggers reduced data speeds or against customers’ tiered data plans. Customers can find out more at www.att.com/datainfo.

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Jeff Gelles Inquirer Business Columnist
About this blog

Jeff Gelles, who writes the Inquirer's weekly Consumer 14.0 and Tech Life columns, takes a broad look at the marketplace of goods, services, and ideas.

Reach Jeff at jgelles@phillynews.com.

Jeff Gelles Inquirer Business Columnist
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