AT&T Clarifies Throttling Policies for Data-Hungry Customers

AT&T has announced plans to throttle subscribers on unlimited 3G and 4G/LTE data plans who exceed a specific limit each month.

Heavy data users be warned. AT&T has announced that it plans to throttle back subscribers on unlimited 3G and 4G data plans who exceed three gigabytes per month. Those on 4G LTE plans will be slowed once they exceed five gigabytes in a given month.

This is the first time we've heard an exact number. Previously, AT&T was a bit more abstract about how it capped usage. It claimed to throttle subscribers who were among the top 5% data users on their respective local networks. A spokesperson for the carrier told the Wall Street Journal that the new guidelines were necessary because of confusion over who would be throttled and when they will be throttled.

Although data use is still technically unlimited, throttling essentially stops data use for those customers by slowing their network speeds to a point where it becomes of little use to them. However, AT&T refuses to say how much of a slowdown those users will see.

Users who approach the 3GB point within a billing cycle will receive a text message to inform them that they are approaching their limit. Their download speeds will return to normal at the start of the next billing cycle--until they again reach 3GB.

It's possible that AT&T announced the plan in response to a recent lawsuit in a small claims court in California in which a judge awarded an iPhone user $850 after AT&T throttled him for exceeding the usage limit. His argument was that he subscribed to an unlimited data plan. The judge ruled in the man's favor saying that it was unfair for the carrier to slow his data when he was paying for "unlimited" data. His claim was that he was using anywhere from 1.5GB to 2GB of data within his billing cycle. AT&T filed an appeal in what was likely a move to keep other disgruntled customers from following suit.

In 2010, AT&T was the first carrier to introduce tiered data plans in hopes of managing network usage. Under these plans, users who go over their set data limit will have to pay an extra set rate per additional gigabyte. Meanwhile, unlimited users don't have to worry about additional costs.

For carriers, throttling and tiered plans amount to nothing more than ways of controlling the use of data flowing through their network. This is especially an issue to them as data-hungry smartphones increase in popularity.

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