If you are grandfathered into the unlimited data plan on AT&T like I am, you’ll laugh in the faces of those who don’t have it. The poor people who are limited to a tiered plan, and constantly have to watch their usage for fear of over paying (as if they aren’t already). However, you may also be watching your data usage as well, after hearing about AT&T’s policy on “throttling”, or limiting the performance of, your data service.

Many users with unlimited data abuse it, there’s no question in that. I’ve seen screenshots of amounts of usage exceeding 20GB in one month. In congested areas, many users experience poor service and data speed performance, and this causes more and more strain on AT&T customer service lines, having to hear complaint after complaint with problems they have no direct control over. At least, until now.

Last year, AT&T warned smartphone customers who still had unlimited data plans that it was going to be temporarily reducing their cellular data speeds if they were in the “top 5 percent” of heaviest data users. Customers then, of course, began in outrage with 611 calls and especially on their official Facebook page. Users were (and still are) furious that their speeds would be limited when they pay $30 per month for what was said to be “unlimited usage” in their contracts. While it’s true that their actual usage actually is “unlimited” still, the speed which data transfers is fair game in the eyes of the carrier.

The main reason here isn’t just money, as it turns out. When this was originally announced, I myself felt this was a bit of corporate greed wanting more and more money (to maybe, I don’t know, prepare for a long battle to get T-Mobile?). Turns out, customer service may actually be on their minds (as well as money), as their policy on the throttle is a bit selective, and not consistent. The policy is only in effect to markets that need it. Let’s grasp the help of the New York Times to look a bit further into this.

John Cozen, an AT&T customer, was among the first to report receiving a notification of being “throttled,” or having his cellular Internet connection slowed down until the next billing cycle. Over the weekend, he posted his e-mail conversation with AT&T, which informed him that he was in the top 5 percent of heaviest data users because he had used 2.1 gigabytes of data.

Mr. Cozen, who said he has an unlimited data plan, believed it was unfair to be throttled. He pointed out that the unlimited data plan costs $30, and AT&T offers a limited data plan for $30 per month that offers 3 gigabytes of data. So what gives?

This is a common question in the minds of customers today. The answer is rather simple, even if it may not be the best way of doing things. AT&T doesn’t have a set number for what qualifies for throttling, and it doesn’t monitor and put the policy into effect for all markets. It only does it in those high-traffic markets where complaints have been a problem from people abusing it. At least, that’s what Mark Siegel, an AT&T spokesperson implies.

You see, Mr. Cozen is being throttled for using less data than somebody currently on a tiered plan, which is exempt from being throttled under the current policy. Aside from this, he’s using much less data than other users around the United States who are on unlimited data plans who are not being throttled. You’d think everyone would be treated equally on a nationwide carrier, but as it’s become obvious, some users will get throttled for excessive use, and others will use a lot more and not see any slowdowns at all. In a phone interview with the New York Times, Mark Siegel, an AT&T spokesman, said that beginning last summer, the “top 5 percent” of AT&T’s heaviest data users have typically used 2 gigabytes or more per month.

That’s quite a lot of data… but I’ve seen more. A lot more. My brother uses twice that, and sometimes three times this number, and he has never once been throttled. Some users on our Facebook page have posted screenshots from the AT&T mobility app for iPhone showing over 15 and sometimes even as insanely high as 20GB of usage in a month, and have never experienced throttling.

So how come some people can use 15-20GB of data every month and be fine, while others can cross over the 2GB mark and be shut down to dial-up speeds? Turns out, it’s not totally about your personal usage. It’s about your location.

Mr. Siegel stated also that even if you do exceed 2 gigabytes of data usage in a month, and qualify as one of the top 5 percent, it doesn’t absolutely mean you’re going to be throttled. AT&T will only reduce speeds for the top 5 percent of users in areas where network capacity or spectrum is insufficient. This means, quite plainly, that not all customers over the entire nationwide network are treated as equals when it comes to being throttled, and that being affected by the policy is basically on a case-by-case basis, according to AT&T’s claims.

“There’s a very good chance you wouldn’t be slowed,” Mr. Siegel said. He added that in the last month, less than 1 percent of AT&T smartphone customers were affected by the policy.

Sounds odd, and one can easily understand where confusion would come from. How can you apply a policy to people who fall within the top 5 percent, and only affect the top 1 percent? People are confused by this. However, this should also tell you quite plainly whether you have anything to worry about. If you aren’t experiencing throttling, you probably won’t for some time (unless you are abusing it, causing your area to be placed on the naughty list or something). Meanwhile, those of you living in congested areas subject to throttling, you’re going to have to deal with it, and pay attention to what you do. This really doesn’t seem all that fair, but I suppose I can understand why AT&T prefers to do it this way, sorta….

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