In another sign that the end of unlimited data packages is looming in the wireless industry, AT&T has officially announced mobile broadband throttling. AT&T calls it a plan to "manage exploding demand for mobile data."
Starting Oct. 1, AT&T smartphone customers with unlimited plans -- the wireless carrier describes these customers as those whose extraordinary level of data usage puts them in the top five percent of heaviest users in a billing period -- may experience throttling, or reduced connection speeds.
Although AT&T was quick to point out how it is investing billions of dollars into its wireless networks to add additional capacity, throttling is an immediate response to network congestion. AT&T stressed that the action would only impact a minority of consumers, those who use 12 times more data on average than typical smartphone data customers. Essentially, consumers that aren't data hogs won't notice any difference in connection speeds.
How This Impacts You
Heavy mobile broadband users, then, can expect to see some reduced speeds once usage in any given billing cycle pushes them beyond AT&T's data-comfort zone. These consumers can still use unlimited data, and the throttling is only temporary. When the next billing cycle begins, those heavy users can connect at full speed once again -- until they cross the threshold.
"The amount of data usage of our top five percent of heaviest users varies from month to month, based on the usage of others and the ever-increasing demand for mobile broadband services," AT&T said in a letter to customers. "To rank among the top five percent, you have to use an extraordinary amount of data in a single billing period."
Streaming very large amounts of video and music daily over the wireless network -- not Wi-Fi -- as well as using streaming-video apps, web cameras, sending large data files, and some online gaming could push consumers into the heavy user category.
Giving Consumers Options
"The bottom line is our customers have options. They can choose to stay on their unlimited plans and use unlimited amounts of data, but may experience reduced speeds at some point if they are an extraordinarily heavy data user," AT&T said in its letter. "If speed is more important, they may wish to switch to a tiered usage plan, where customers can pay for more data if they need it and will not see reduced speeds."
Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Gartner, isn't surprised to see AT&T take these measures. He agreed with AT&T's decision to throttle the heaviest users, which represent a disproportionate use of the network and hinder the experience for typical consumers.
"This approach makes sense. This is opposed to saying that if you go over your limit we are just going to bill you, and suddenly consumers have these surprise charges on their bills," Gartenberg said. "Consumers will get warnings, so throttling isn't something that would just happen out of the blue without any rhyme or reason so that consumers could adjust their habits."