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Rumor: AT&T to turn to throttling rather than data caps?

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A new report has mobile operator AT&T apparently getting ready to steal a page from acquisition target T-Mobile: instead of charging mobile users extra for going over their monthly data allowances, 9to5Mac reports that AT&T is planning to shift to a throttling model, where the heaviest data users who go over their monthly limit won’t be charged more money, but will see the bandwidth available to them sharply curtailed. 9to5Mac speculates the change will roll out the first week of October, which falls roughly in line with the currently-rumored mdi-September launch date for Apple’s next iPhone.

AT&T currently charges users $25 per month for up to 2 GB of data service, and the company says the majority of its mobile data users stay well within that limit. However, heavy data users who exceed the 2GB threshold get charges an additional $10 per gigabyte during the billing cycle.

Switching to a throttled plan could, like T-Mobile, enable the company to advertise unlimited mobile data service, with the fine print indicating that if users exceed a certain threshold in a billing cycle, the bandwidth available to them will be reduced until the start of the next billing cycle. T-Mobile currently throttles heavy data users to 256Kbps once they exceed their threshold: that’s enough bandwidth to enable basic connectivity, email, and Web browsing, but not enough for serious streaming media or other data-intensive applications.

Some mobile users prefer the throttling method because they don’t inadvertently incur additional charges on their bill if someone sends them an enormous attachment, they inadvertently get pulled into the infinite vortex of silly pet videos, or they play an online game for hours without realizing they’re connected via mobile data rather than Wi-Fi. On the other hand, mobile users whose lives revolve around having high-bandwidth capabilities at any time may prefer just to pay for more bandwidth if they need it.

Virgin Mobile plans to switch to a throttling model in October.

AT&T is currently in the process of attempting to acquire T-Mobile; if the merger is approved, the combined company will be the largest mobile operator in the United States.

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