Who benefits from AT&T’s new unlimited data throttling rules?

att_throttling_iphone_dataAT&T announced that it would revise its policy for unlimited data plan holders, following recent criticism over a lack of transparency in those plans. Going forward, subscribers that surpass 3 gigabytes of usage in a billing cycle will be subject to a reduction in download speed, a practice known as “throttling.” Prior to the announcement, data throttling occurred only for the top 5 percent of data users, and based on geographic location and network load, according to AT&T — factors that users found difficult to independently verify or predict.

As AT&T said in a statement to CNET on Thursday, “Our unlimited plan customers have told us they want more clarity around how the program works and what they can expect.”

AT&T has begun publicly addressing the alleged need for further wireless spectrum in handling its increased network traffic, following the closely watched collapse of its attempted merger with T-Mobile USA. The terms of that deal would have seen AT&T acquiring T-Mobile’s valuable wireless bandwidth, in addition to its customer base, creating the largest US wireless carrier. Instead, AT&T was forced to concede billions of dollars worth of its own wireless spectrum to T-Mobile, following the intense regulatory scrutiny that forced AT&T to abandon the merger.

AT&T explained its decision to throttle unlimited data customers by citing that “their data usage is significantly higher than those on tiered plans. For example, in January, the top 5 percent of our unlimited data plan customers used an average of over 50 percent more data than the top 5 percent of customers on tiered plans.”

However, last week we covered a report published by the wireless research firm Validas, which found that the top 5 percent of unlimited data users in fact consumed almost exactly the same amount of data as the top tiered monthly users — or those subscribers who have a capped monthly allowance of data.

More likely, AT&T is attempting to future-proof its own network in anticipation of the explosion in data use new 4G LTE devices will introduce. Currently 4G phones make up a small percentage of AT&T’s overall customer base — but that is expected to change quickly as competitors such as Verizon and even T-Mobile build out their own LTE networks over the next year. Still, AT&T’s current policy looks to be more about moving legacy customers to increasingly profitable tiered plans than about current network needs. To this point, according to the new plan, AT&T’s unlimited 4G subscribers will have a higher threshold for throttling — 5 gigabytes — due to that technology’s higher bandwidth use.

AT&T has reportedly been toying with unconventional ways to juice more money from its broadband infrastructure: One idea had John Donovan, AT&T’s chief of network technology, proposing app developers pay for the data their apps use. He likened the plan to toll-free calling, saying  “A feature that we’re hoping to have out sometime next year is the equivalent of 800 numbers that would say, if you take this app, this app will come without any network usage,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

Currently, AT&T has about 17 million “unlimited” data users. If that figure is accurate, roughly 850,000 users will potentially be affected by the new throttling policy.

All the major US wireless carriers except Sprint participate in some form of throttling of unlimited users: T-Mobile throttles after 5 gigabytes, and Verizon does it based on the top 5 percent of users but only when a specific local cell tower is congested with heavy network traffic.

For the vast majority of wireless data users, 3 gigabytes of use is a long way off — the average American smart phone consumed just 435 MB in the first quarter of 2011, according to Nielson. Put that in perspective though, and the rate of growth is actually quite astounding: Consumption was up 89 percent since the first quarter of 2010, when average data use was less than 230 MB.

Emerging Tech

Japanese scientists are chewing over an ‘electric gum’ that never loses flavor

Researchers at Japan's Meiji University may have found the secret to unlimited chewing gum -- and it just involves zapping your tongue with electricity. Here's what makes it all work.

Sprint now lets you add Hulu's Live TV service to your unlimited plan

Sprint recently introduced three new data plans to its roster -- Unlimited Basic , Unlimited Plus, and Unlimited Premium. Here, we break down your options to help you decide which one is best for you and your family.
Home Theater

Cutting the cord? Let us help you find the best service for live TV streaming

There's a long list of live TV streaming services available to help you cut the cord and replace your traditional TV subscription. Each is different in important ways, and this guide will help you find the best one for you.

Which Verizon plan is best for you? We check out family, individual, and prepaid

Verizon offers lots of plans for individuals, your family, and folks who want prepaid service. Here is everything you need to know about Verizon's plans, from data packages and smartphones to Big Red's prepaid plans.

Need a quick battery boost? Try one of our favorite portable chargers

Battery life still tops the polls when it comes to smartphone concerns. If it’s bugging you, then maybe it’s time to snag yourself a portable charger. Here are our picks of the best portable chargers.

Which new iPhone is the best? iPhone XS vs. iPhone XS Max vs. iPhone XR

Apple has three new iPhone models to choose from this year, making the choice a little harder than usual. What's the difference between the iPhone XS, the iPhone XS Max, and the iPhone XR, and which is best?

Camera shootout! Testing the latest Pixel, iPhone, and Galaxy Note in real life

Which takes the best photos, the Pixel 3 XL, iPhone XS Max, Galaxy Note 9, or Pixel 2 XL? We put the cameras on all these top-notch phones through their paces to see which performs best in the real world, from low light to portrait mode…

Google may charge up to $40 per Android device for app suite following EU ruling

Google announced that it will be charging Android device manufacturers in Europe a licensing fee to use its apps and services. The announcement is part of an effort to comply with new European Commission regulations.

Need a do-over? Here's how to factory reset an iPhone, from XS on down

Resetting an iPhone can alleviate all sorts of software woes, and wipe away personal data should you sell your device or give it to someone else. Here's how to factory reset an iPhone from within iOS or iTunes.
Product Review

Huawei’s monster Mate 20 X makes the Galaxy Note 9 look small

The Huawei Mate 20 X has a 7.2-inch screen, but is surprisingly manageable to hold, yet still a little too big to carry around. Huawei’s pushing the phone’s ability as a mobile gaming handheld, challenging the Nintendo Switch.

How to sell your old Google Pixel or Pixel 2 for the most money

So, it's time for a expensive new smartphone, and you'd like to partially fund the purchase by selling your old Google Pixel. Find all the information you need to get as much money as possible for your Pixel or Pixel 2 here in our guide.

The OnePlus 6T is coming a day earlier, event moved to October 29

According to a recent report, the launch of the OnePlus 6T could be different from any other OnePlus launch in history. How? It could have the backing of a major U.S. carrier. Here's everything we know about the OnePlus 6T.

Sams's Club offers $100 gift cards for iPhone XR pre-orders

After months of rumors and speculation, Apple has finally taken the wraps off of the new iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, and iPhone XR. Now that the phones are out, you might be wondering how you can get them for yourself.

It’s about time! A USB-C magnetic charger for the Apple Watch has finally arrived

While most of the buzz surrounding Apple has been about the iPhone XR, the company also introduced a new Apple Watch accessory. Starting October 24, a USB-C magnetic charger will be available for purchase.