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Here's more evidence in support of the theory that communications service providers often use data throttling solely to make more money for themselves.

Though AT&T likes to cite network congestion as an excuse for throttling certain of its mobile customers' connection speeds, its latest offer to double the data limits for new subscribers who sign up for its Mobile Share Value plan by October 31 strongly suggests that AT&T's data-throttling activities have less to do with reining in bandwidth hogs than with generating additional revenue for AT&T.

There's a longstanding debate over the issue of data throttling (or “network optimization,” as Verizon prefers to call it): deliberately slowing down, or “throttling,” someone's Internet connection, possibly to the point where streaming videos and other common activities becomes impossible until the throttling stops.

Fans of the practice (read: the companies who do it) say data throttling is necessary to prevent certain users from hogging up all the bandwidth, thus ruining smartphones and the Internet for everybody. And there's no denying that sometimes, when networks actually are congested due to heavy use, some level of throttling for the heaviest users genuinely is necessary to keep the network running.

(On a related note: that's why, when hurricanes or other natural disasters knock out utilities over a wide area, cell phone and smartphone users are asked to use text messaging rather than voice calls to keep in touch with friends and family: because text messaging uses far less bandwidth.)

Counter-arguments

Critics of the practice have a variety of counter-arguments, the most common of which is that data throttling has nothing to do with bandwidth capacity or healthy network management, but is merely a way for companies to get more money out of customers.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is one of those critics. Last July, he sent an open letter to Verizon executives expressing concerns over their data throttling/network optimization tactics and asking several pointed questions, including this:

What is your rationale for treating customers differently based on the type of data plan to which they subscribe, rather than network architecture or technological factors? In particular, please explain your statement that, "If you're on an unlimited data plan and are concerned that you are in the top 5% of data users, you can switch to a usage-based data plan as customers on usage-based plans are not impacted."

Not that Verizon is unique in its apparent tendency to use data throttling for reasons other than legitimate network management. In January 2014, AT&T launched its then-new “Sponsored Data” program, which it said would shift “mobile data costs from the consumer to the content provider.” (In other words, websites would have to pay in order to ensure AT&T mobile visitors could access them in a timely fashion, in complete opposite of proposed “net neutrality” rules.)

At the time, TechDirt called the program “an admission that data caps have nothing to do with congestion.”

And AT&T's current “double the amount of data” promotion seems to admit the same.

"Unlimited" data

Data throttling doesn't affect all AT&T mobile customers, only those with unlimited data plans. (AT&T no longer offers unlimited plans to new customers, though it still has some old customers enrolled in what it now calls the “Legacy Unlimited Data Plan.”)

AT&T's info page about the legacy plan says that:

As a result of the AT&T network management process, customers on a 3G or 4G smartphone with an unlimited data plan who have exceeded 3 gigabytes of data in a billing period may experience reduced speeds when using data services at times and in areas that are experiencing network congestion. Customers on a 4G LTE smartphone will experience reduced speeds once their usage in a billing cycle exceeds 5 gigabytes of data. All such customers can still use unlimited data without incurring overage charges, and their speeds will be restored with the start of the next billing cycle.

In other words: even if your plan promises “unlimited” data, once you pass a certain limit your connection will be throttled. However, the very first clause in the paragraph suggests this throttling is necessary, as part of “the AT&T network management process.”

So, if you have an unlimited data plan with AT&T, your connection might be throttled after you exceed 3 GB of data in a billing period, and will definitely be throttled if you exceed 5 GB. How does that compare to AT&T's regular plans, or its current promotion for new customers who sign up by Halloween?

AT&T is offering new promotional Mobile Share Value plans that include double the amount of data offered on Mobile Share Value plans with 15GB to 50 GB of data. New and existing customers who proactively sign-up by October 31* get 30GB of data for the price of 15GB**

Throttled after 5GB

So AT&T users with unlimited data plans get throttled after using only 5GB in a billing period, whereas “ordinary” new customers get at least 15GB per billing period, but as part of this promotion can get 30GB – six times what “unlimited” data users get before they're throttled. And that's the smallest data plan; AT&T offers another with a whopping 100GB of shared data – for $375 per month.

Yet the same company that can provide up to 100 gigabytes of shared data to certain customers also claims that “network management” obligates it to throttle any unlimited data user who shares a mere 5 gigabytes of data. That's how math works at AT&T company HQ: 5GB from an “unlimited” plan causes more congestion than a 100GB limit.


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