AT&T is under fire for throttling top data users on unlimited plans, as the spectrum crunch cuts back on the buffet of bandwidth.
Last year, the Dallas, Texas-based carrier had announced plans to throttle the heaviest of data users, but only recently put penalties into effect. The slower speeds last for a user’s billing cycle, meaning unlimited data customers may face weeks of extremely slow speeds.
For tiered data plan subscribers, all major U.S. carriers levy overage fees, and AT&T imposes a moderate fee once customers reach their data limit.
Consumers increasingly demand mobile devices that allow them to quickly stream music, videos and other content. But the activity strains networks, and with limited spectrum available, carriers have little choice but to move away from unlimited data plans toward tiered pricing.
With a limited supply of spectrum becoming an increasingly hot commodity, carriers can’t accommodate lightning fast speeds and unlimited data for all customers, and overstressed networks face the potential for technical problems and even crashes.
AT&T’s throttling is one way to manage the bottlenecks, but the result is frustrating its customers.
Mike Trang, a frustrated AT&T user, told the Associated Press that as a top data consumer, download speeds on his phone slowed from a few seconds to upwards of two minutes for average web pages, rendering his phone “basically useless” until the billing cycle regenerates.
Still, AT&T customers’ view these methods as especially unfair since they chose “unlimited” plans. AT&T’s text messages warn unlimited plan users they’re close to being throttled after they’ve used just 1.5-gigabytes of data per month, a rate easily reached by downloading a movie or two. But confusingly, the company’s tiered pricing plan offers 3-gigabytes of data for the same $30 monthly price.
Other carriers are forming strategies as well as they move towards tiered data plans. Verizon is phasing out its unlimited data plans, and T-Mobile imposes limits once customers reach 5-gigabytes. AT&T’s tactics will likely push consumers to opt for tiered data plans, rather than face unexpected fees in the future.
AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel said the company doesn’t throttle all the top five percent of “unlimited” data users — only those in the most congested areas that month. However, most major metro areas likely fall into that class, and subscribers may still feel deceived when they sign up for an “unlimited” plan but face slower speeds.
Navigating the spectrum crunch while pleasing customers is a tricky balance for carriers, and AT&T is learning the hard way. Tiered pricing plans are likely the way of the future, and while no user wants to face data throttling, at least consumers will know what they’re getting.