ATandT Throttling Policy Clarified After Court Loss

AT&T has clarified some details of its data-throttling policies. While not saying it's related, the move comes after AT&T was sued in small-claims court and lost.

AT&T has relented a bit on its throttling policies and shared new information about what has been an opaque area. In July 2011, the carrier had told smartphone customers who had unlimited plans that€”in a step to "manage exploding demand for mobile data"€”anyone whose data use during a billing period put them in the "top 5 percent" of heavy data users would experience slower speeds, a process known as "throttling."

On March 1, AT&T clarified that using more than 3GB on its Evolved High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA+) network put a user in the top 5 percent€”also known as€”here comes the throttling. Users with smartphones capable of accessing its 4G Long-Term Evolution (LTE) network can use up to 5GB before the throttling activates. Users unsure of how much data they've used during a billing cycle can dial *data# on their phones to check.

Such measures, AT&T said on its Website, are a "response to soaring mobile broadband usage and the limited availability of wireless spectrum."

AT&T no longer offers unlimited plans. However, when the program ended in 2010, it honored the contracts of the customers who had already signed up for it.

Or, sort of.

Throttling wasn't part of the deal then, and the introduction of the process has created a number of disgruntled customers on a network that has already ranked last on J.D. Powers and Associates' customer care surveys.

(Although, a survey by Vocalabs has told a different story.)

One California-based user, Matt Spaccarelli, was so frustrated by speeds throttled to the point of rendering his iPhone useless for checking email, Web browsing and using apps, that he sued AT&T in a Simi Valley small-claims court, The New York Times reported March 1€”and won a whopping $850.

Whether AT&T's decision to be less secretive came as a result of Spaccarelli's court win is unclear. The carrier wouldn't give the Times an interview, but said in a statement, "AT&T, like other wireless companies, must take steps to manage the exploding demand for mobile data as fairly and effectively as possible."

Verizon Wireless, the nation's largest network, and T-Mobile, the fourth-largest carrier, also have throttling policies. Only No. 3 carrier Sprint doesn't step on the hose€”a practice that some say isn't sustainable for much longer, especially since Sprint now offers the iPhone.

Sprint's open, unlimited plan is for now its main selling point. Despite ending unlimited data plans for data cards in Oct. 2011, Sprint CEO Dan Hesse has said the iPhone actually helps it out.

€œOne of the beauties of carrying the iPhone is it extends the period of time and increases the likelihood of us maintaining unlimited data longer because it uses our network so efficiently,€ Hesse told Forbes'Elizabeth Woyke, in an October interview, likening it to the Prius of smartphones.

As for AT&T's throttling and unhappy customers, its terms-of-service agreement includes language preventing users from banning together and filing a class-action suit. Each, should they be inclined, needs to file against the company€”whose fourth-quarter 2011 consolidated revenues were $32.5 billion€”on their own.

Spaccarelli, telling the Times that he doesn't want anyone to think he just "got lucky," has created a Website where he's posted the paperwork he painstakingly compiled and the steps he took, in case it should be a help to anyone also considering putting together a suit.

He's also accepting donations.

"An appeal from AT&T is most likely from my ruling," Spaccarelli wrote on his bare-bones site, which includes an ad for poker chips sold by the buddy who helped him put up the site. "If you'd like to support me for future battles, please donate via Pay Pal with the link below."