December 8, 2014
Though it’s just recently making headlines, data throttling may have been affecting customers for years.
Earlier this year, regulators discovered that major U.S. carriers have been deceptive, allegedly taking advantage of customers through practices like cramming (see Mobile Cramming: What Is It and Who is Affected?) and throttling.
Data throttling is the practice of slowing down data flowing from a mobile network,* resulting in slow connection speeds for users. Typically, it is used when a network is experiencing heavy traffic; thus the carrier must scale back data speeds to accommodate for more connections.
However, certain carriers may be taking advantage of this practice and, in turn, their customers.
Today, although top carriers no longer offers unlimited data plans, many customers who paid extra for these legacy “unlimited” mobile plans are still – usually unknowingly – subject to throttling.
Furthermore, carriers may not just be throttling data during periods of high network traffic.
Last week, no. 2 U.S. wireless carrier AT&T (currently facing lawsuits for this and other deceptive mobile practices – see Defining Unlimited: U.S. Government Cracks Down on Deceptive Carrier Practices) admitted to purposely throttling any 4G LTE data plans (including unlimited ones) that exceed 5GB per month. These customers are then throttled for the remainder of the month at all times, regardless of whether or not the network is congested.†
The bottom line: Though carriers have the right to slow down customers’ speeds to maintain network quality, AT&T (and possibly other carriers) appears to be using that capability to impose a data cap on its unlimited customers and encourage them to buy pricier, “high-data” plans.†
In light of these discoveries and subsequent lawsuits, AT&T has stated that their policy will be changed, which could set precedents for the future handling of data throttling.
However, they estimate this change taking place “sometime in 2015,” which unfortunately could be more than a year for users with legacy unlimited plans. Customers who decide to leave these plans could be hit with overage charges instead of slower data when they exceed their limit.
While these lawsuits make their way through court, and until the full extent of this practice is known across the industry, experts highlight ways to avoid throttling* (regardless of carrier):
It may be inconvenient, but it’s certainly worth-it to avoid throttling. Wait until you have a reliable WiFi connection with enough high-speed data to watch Netflix or download large app updates. AT&T’s unlimited data users must keep in mind the 5GB data cap, while Verizon Wireless users should try to avoid using too much data during peak usage times to avoid throttling (Verizon began throttling 4G LTE customers in July of 2014).*
Many data-intensive streaming apps allow users to stream content at lower quality and speeds to conserve data. Alternatively, certain browsers exist for the sole purpose of compressing websites and data before sending them to a mobile device (e.g. Opera Mini).*
For users who consume less than 10GB per month with two or three devices – it might be more beneficial to switch to a mobile data share plan than keeping a grandfathered unlimited data plan. For out-of-contract users – it might be more beneficial to switch to a no-contract plan, with shared data on AT&T for $100 a month for 15GB (plus access charges of $15 per device).
These plans include unlimited talk, text and the ability to use your device as a mobile hotspot for no extra charge, which AT&T doesn’t allow for its unlimited data customers. One thing to keep in mind – your plan would be subjected to overage charges.*
Overall, it may be in your best interests to switch to a more lenient carrier when it comes to data throttling. For example, Sprint and T-Mobile have very similar data plans (see A Price War Rages Between Sprint and T-Mobile) that include fully unlimited plans, unlimited talk and texting, mobile hot spot access (limited to 5GB a month).
However, keep in mind that other carriers also have policies allowing for data slowdowns based on network performance.
* Villapaz, Luke. Don’t Throttle Me: How To Avoid Slowdowns On Mobile Data Plans, International Business Times. IBT Media Inc.
† Brodkin, Jon. AT&T still throttles “unlimited data”—even when network not congested, Ars Technica. Condé Nast.