With the release of the iPhone 4, AT&T did away with its unlimited data plan, replacing it with tiered data rates. Users who were already subscribed to an unlimited data plan were grandfathered in, and have thus far been allowed to keep the plans.
When October 1st rolls around, unlimited data is not going to be quite so unlimited for some subscribers. AT&T’s heaviest data users – the top five percent – can look forward to reduced data throughput speed, or throttling after their data usage hits a certain point.
AT&T claims that these data snarfing hogs use 12 times more data than the average customer, and that most customers won’t be affected. This change will not impact users who are on a tiered data plan at all, and is unlikely to affect the average customer with an unlimited data plan.
Customers with unlimited data plans who are heavy data users can expect to be throttled as soon as they reach that “top five percent” mark. Data is still unlimited, but speeds will be much slower until the start of the next billing cycle.
According to AT&T, to reach the top five percent, you have to use “an extraordinary amount of data in a single billing period.” Unfortunately, extraordinary is not further quantified, so there’s no way to tell what approximate amount of data you can use before throttling begins. AT&T also does not mention what speeds will be reduced to.
AT&T does mention that streaming large amounts of video and music over the wireless (note: not Wi-Fi) network is typically what uses the most bandwidth. Those of you who are watching Netflix or using one of the many music streaming services on 3G may need to keep an eye on data usage. Using Wi-Fi on your iPhone or iPad will not count towards the new top five percent cap, as Wi-Fi does not cause wireless network congestion.
AT&T suggests that heavy data users may wish to switch to a tiered data usage plan to pay for more data without reduced speeds. AT&T’s top data plan is 4GB for $45 with $10 per GB over that, but users in the top five percent are likely exceeding that number. Streaming video for just 50 minutes a day uses 2.86 GB of data per month while streaming music for five hours a day uses 5.17 GB per month. And that’s not taking into account any emails, web browsing, photo uploading, or app downloading.
As of now, the details of AT&T’s reduced speeds are unclear in regards to how much (in general, since it will change monthly) usage will put you in the top five and the exact amount of throttling that will occur. Hopefully as October 1st approaches, more information will be released.
As a final note, in what seems to be a political move, AT&T wants everyone to know that even throttling heavy users will not solve its network capacity issues. Only the merger with T-Mobile will provide enough additional spectrum capacity to alleviate its near term challenges and increase network speed overall. I guess we’re all supposed to cross our fingers that the merger goes through, because if it doesn’t, we’re definitely heading towards the end of our grandfathered unlimited data plans.