AT&T Caps Unlimited Data Plans

AT&T is changing the way it discourages customers from hogging too much bandwidth on its network.

The wireless carrier said Thursday that it will throttle the data — slow the transmission speed — for customers with "unlimited" data plans when they reach 3 gigabytes of data usage within a billing cycle. Customers who use its fastest "4G" data network, called LTE, would experience a slowdown at 5 GB of data usage.

Previously, AT&T slowed transmission only for those in the top 5% of heavy data users in an area for the month. AT&T hadn't revealed how much data you'd have to consume to be in that top 5%, but subscribers assumed the limit was about 5 GB per month, says Deepa Karthikeyan, a telecom analyst at research firm Current Analysis.

Some have complained that AT&T begins throttling a lot sooner. "Our unlimited plan customers have told us they want more clarity around how the program works and what they can expect," AT&T said in a statement.

Like competitor Verizon Wireless, AT&T stopped selling unlimited plans in 2010. Those who had them were allowed to keep them. New customers choose from a menu of several tiered plans, ranging from 300 megabytes a month to 5 GB. Tiered-plan customers who exceed their limit are charged "overage" fees.

Karthikeyan says AT&T's latest move might be a tactic to encourage customers on unlimited plans to move to tier plans. Knowing data would be throttled at 3 GB, some heavy data users might be compelled to upgrade to a 5 GB plan, for instance.

When throttled, users can still do e-mail and Web browsing, but they would find streaming of video and audio difficult, if not impossible, she says.

"There was general discontent among (unlimited data) customers. If you called customer service reps, they were pushing you to tiered plans," Karthikeyan says.

Customers have complained publicly about throttling. And AT&T's latest change may have been influenced by a desire to avoid legal troubles.

Matt Spaccarelli, a student, sued AT&T and won $850 in damages from a small claims court in Simi Valley, Calif. The judge said AT&T's "unlimited" data service shouldn't be slowed.

T-Mobile throttles after 2 GB for its basic unlimited plan. Sprint, which offers unlimited plans, doesn't throttle but says it can kick out data abusers. Verizon also says it may throttle the top 5% of heavy users.


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