AT&T Modifies Throttling Rules for Unlimited Data Customers

In the past, AT&T throttled back speeds when unlimited data users consumed more than 5GB of data in a month. The new threshold is 22GB.

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AT&T will now let unlimited data customers use as much as 22GB of mobile data in a month before throttling back the user's speeds due to overuse, which is more than four times the former 5GB monthly limit that the company previously imposed on customers.

AT&T made the announcement in a recent post on its support Website, explaining that the move was being done because the company has been upgrading and enhancing its network across the country.

The data slowdowns are done as part of "network management practices" that the company uses to ensure that its network operates well for all customers, the company explained.

"As always, Unlimited Data Plan smartphone customers will still have the comfort of knowing that, no matter how much data they use in a billing cycle, they will continue to pay a single monthly flat rate," the post states. "That is the essential promise of the Unlimited Data Plan, and we are pleased to continue honoring that promise. Further, speed reductions will occur only when the customer is using his or her device at times and in areas where there is network congestion and only for the remainder of the current billing cycle after the customer has exceeded the 22GB data usage threshold."

AT&T also said that it will notify customers during each billing cycle when their data usage reaches 16.5GB (75 percent of 22GB) so they can adjust their usage to avoid network management practices that may result in slower data speeds.

In a reply to an email inquiry from eWEEK, an AT&T spokesman said that the data threshold increase follows key network improvements that now allow the changes. "Due to the investments we've made to strengthen our network, we are now able to provide a better experience for our legacy unlimited data customers on 3G/4G or LTE," the spokesman said. "Most major wireless companies manage network resources in a similar fashion. As you would expect, our network management practices have evolved over time to benefit our customers and take advantage of the billions we have spent to expand and augment our networks. Our recent implementation of a new 22GB data usage threshold for Unlimited Data Plan smartphone customers is just the latest step in this evolution."

The spokesman did not comment when asked if AT&T's throttling threshold changes are related to a proposed $100 million fine against the company from the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission in connection with its throttling practices against users of unlimited data accounts.

Last October, the FCC and the FTC sued AT&T Mobility for allegedly throttling down service speeds for at least 3.5 million mobile phone customers despite contracts that allowed the customers to enjoy unlimited data use under their service plans, according to an earlier eWEEK report. The agencies alleged that AT&T would throttle, or reduce, the data speeds of a customer's mobile device, which allegedly violated the service terms of unlimited data plan holders. The company allegedly failed to adequately explain to customers that, if they would reach a certain amount of data use in each billing period, they could be subject to service slowdowns, the government argued.

The data speed reductions by AT&T were in some cases by up to nearly 90 percent for users, according to the FTC. AT&T's marketing materials emphasized the unlimited amount of data that would be available to consumers who signed up for its unlimited plans, yet the company failed to inform customers of the throttling program, according to the lawsuit.

AT&T's alleged practices in connection with throttling data began in 2011 for unlimited data plan customers after they used as little as 2GB of data in a billing period, the government stated. The FTC received consumer complaints about the practice, which eventually led to the lawsuit by the FTC and the FCC.

The two-count lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Francisco Division, charges AT&T with one count of maintaining an "Unfair Mobile Data Throttling Program" and one count of a "Deceptive Failure to Disclose Mobile Data Throttling Program."

The government alleges that AT&T violated the FTC Act by changing the terms of customers' unlimited data plans while those customers were still under contract, and by failing to adequately disclose the nature of the throttling program to consumers who renewed their unlimited data plans.

The FCC and FTC's case against AT&T is still pending, though the agencies proposed a $100 million fine in June.