AT&T to slow speeds for top 5% of unlimited data plan users
In yet another sign that true unlimited data plans for cellphones are heading toward extinction, AT&T said Friday that it will begin throttling data speeds for its top 5% of data consumers as of Oct. 1.
"These customers can still use unlimited data and their speeds will be restored with the start of the next billing cycle," AT&T said in a statement. "Before you are affected, we will provide multiple notices, including a grace period. This change will never impact the vast majority of our customers, and is designed to create a better service experience for all."
T-Mobile and Verizon have made similar moves, leaving Sprint as the only major U.S. carrier to offer a truly unlimited and unthrottled data plan.
"The amount of data usage of our top 5% 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. "To rank among the top 5%, you have to use an extraordinary amount of data in a single billing period."
All wireless carriers are seeing their users consume more data, with faster and more capable smartphones using speedier 3G and 4G networks. As popularity of downloading videos, music and apps climbs, data usage grows.
"Like other wireless companies, we're taking steps to manage exploding demand for mobile data," AT&T said. "Many experts agree the country is facing a serious wireless spectrum crunch. We're responding on many levels, including investing billions in our wireless network this year and working to acquire additional network capacity."
AT&T said that the top 5% of data consumers on its network "on average use 12 times more data than the average of all other smartphone data customers." The changes, the carrier promised, won't apply to the 15 million or so subscribers on tiered data plans "or the vast majority of smartphone customers who still have unlimited data plans."
But although AT&T says its changes won't affect most users, it did say the move won't be the be-all, end-all solution to it trying to serve up the data demanded by its customers.
"Even as we pursue this additional measure, it will not solve our spectrum shortage and network capacity issues," AT&T said. "Nothing short of completing the T-Mobile merger will provide additional spectrum capacity to address these near term challenges."
One last thought: Apple's iPhone 5 (or whatever it'll be called) is rumored to be hitting AT&T and Verizon (and possibly other carriers too) in September. Previous iterations of the iPhone have brought AT&T's networks to their knees. This move might be one made in consideration of that product launch as well.
-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles
Photo: A customer enters an AT&T store in Santa Monica on July 20. Credit: Reed Saxon / Associated Press