Even though AT&T has a really messed up way of telling people who are paying for unlimited data that they can’t have unlimited speed, it’s been taken that the reason for such a policy was because unlimited data users are “abusing” their data plans with a careless consumption rate. It’s an unlimited policy, which can be taken for granted and overdone to impact other users on the network. That’s the reason for it to exist.

However, a recent study by Validas, a company dedicated to helping people save money with their wireless service by analyzing usage patterns and plan pricing, is saying that this may not actually be true in most cases. The two largest wireless carriers no longer offer unlimited data plans for their high-end smartphones, but there are still many unlimited data subscribers such as myself who are still enjoying it. We’ve been “grandfathered in”, and as such, we can keep the plan we are currently on, at the current price. That can go on as long as we are on contract, or if we are retaining off-contract service and AT&T allows us to keep it with new technology developing in the future.

According to how AT&T claims their system works, those who are still running on an unlimited data plan “may experience a speed reduction” if they go too far with their data consumption, meaning when they reach the point where they fall into the “top 5%” of consumption amounts within a single billing period. The problem here is the vagueness in the term “top 5%”. AT&T never actually gives you a number, instead opting to base their policy of practicing an un-equal throttling policy, looking at users on a per-market basis. There is an unclear threshold for users to watch for until it’s too late. AT&T has, in hundreds of reported cases around the internet, throttled users after less than 2GB of data usage in a billing period. That’s far less than their 3GB tiered plan (which cost the same amount). It really makes you wonder about having an unlimited data plan at all, and that’s exactly what AT&T wanted you to think about.

But does it really make all that much difference? Do unlimited data users really use a significant amount of data more than everybody else on a tiered plan? So far, AT&T looks like the bad-guy for making people think about giving in to their limitations of service, and according to a new study, customers have every right to be upset at AT&T, because as it turns out, throttling doesn’t even do anything to help solve network overloads. Surprised?

Notice tiered VZW customers use more on average than unlimited customers do

Validas extracted data from over 55,000 phone bills in 2011 from customers of AT&T and Verizon wireless on a quest to see whether throttling actually does anything to total data averages consumed by customers. Looks to me like throttling does virtually nothing at all.

In a blog post titled Why Throttle “Unlimited” Data Plans: Save Bandwidth or Drive Conversions to Tiered Data?, the company questioned why carriers believed these policies were even worth while, when the results show virtually no significant difference in usage, despite the growing number of people signing up to tiered data packages. And really, with the negative press it gets them, why continue to do something that has no value to consumers, or the company?

“When we look at the top 5% of data users, there is virtually no difference in data consumption between those on unlimited and those on tiered plans—and yet the unlimited consumers are the ones at risk of getting their service turned off. So it’s curious that anyone would think the throttling here represents a serious effort at alleviating network bandwidth issues. After all, Sprint does seemingly fine maintaining non-throttled unlimited data for its customers.” – Validas report.

Will Validas’ report have any impact on company policies? I rather doubt it, but it has to make consumers question the motives behind such aggressive pushing toward tiered plans. Is it an effort to help preserve their network image by limiting speeds of heavy users like they seem to be doing on the outside, or is this a tactic to gain more control over consumers in the long haul? Verizon and AT&T both throttle their users who are on unlimited data plans, and T-Mobile does it to users who reach 5GB. That’s the difference though; T-Mobile subscribers know the limit, and it’s much higher than AT&T.

Sprint is currently the only major wireless company that doesn’t throttle their customers, using this policy as a marketing ploy on television commercials nationwide. Sprint doesn’t seem to have any issues holding down the fort on it’s network abilities, but they also have a lot of hardware around the nation, and a lot less subscribers using it.

(via Validas)

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