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AT&T Data Throttling Hits Heaviest Users

Top 5% of mobile broadband users will see wireless data speeds reduced beginning October 1.
In response to increased demand for mobile broadband services, AT&T has confirmed rumors that it will begin throttling data connections for the top 5% of users starting October 1. The move echoes policy changes from competitor Verizon Wireless, which stopped offering unlimited data plans to new customers in July.

In a statement issued Friday, AT&T warned that "smartphone customers with unlimited data plans may experience reduced speeds once their usage in a billing cycle reaches the level that puts them among the top 5 percent of heaviest data users." According to the company, users in this group consume 12 times more data than the average AT&T customer.

Some 15 million AT&T customers with tiered data plans will be unaffected by the policy change, as will the vast majority of unlimited plan users. People who use their phones to stream video content and music, however, will have reason to be more cautious about their usage.

AT&T has said that it will "provide multiple notices, including a grace period" to users whose data consumption rises above the 95th percentile during a single billing cycle. Affected users will still have access to unlimited data, though at a reduced speed, and their speeds will be restored to normal at the start of the next billing cycle. AT&T has not disclosed details about the severity of the speed reduction for affected users.

Business travelers who rely on their phones for news and entertainment on the go may find themselves at risk for a data slowdown. To avoid being affected by the data slowdown, heavy data users should seek alternative network connections whenever possible. Connecting to Wi-Fi at every opportunity, and downloading video and music content over Wi-Fi connections before leaving home or work, can significantly reduce a heavy user's mobile data consumption.

Within its statement about the upcoming speed cuts, AT&T has vaguely implied that this policy change may be temporary, pending its merger with competitor T-Mobile. "Nothing short of completing the T-Mobile merger will provide additional spectrum capacity to address these near term challenges," the company said. If history is any indication, however, there is good cause for skepticism that AT&T will reverse its decision to throttle data for heavy users.

Long before making the choice to throttle its data speeds for customers with unlimited data plans, AT&T has received heavy criticism for the quality of its connectivity, including frequent jokes at the company's expense from late-night comedians Jon Stewart and Conan O'Brien. While slowing down connections for the heaviest users could ease bandwidth bottlenecks for ordinary consumers, the decision to deliberately slow its service for data-heavy users is unlikely to help the network's reputation.

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