Post

If Data Caps Lack Clarity, Then Data Hogs = Flying Pigs

February 15, 2012 , , ,

AT&T started throttling the cell phones of some of its
heaviest data users (sometimes referred to as “data hogs”) a few months ago.
Reports from the field indicate that those heavy network using “data hogs” are
not that different from anyone else. 

AT&T says it only throttles the smartphones of customers
who use “extraordinary level[s] of data usage.” 
It turns out that these “extraordinary levels of data usage” on
unlimited plans are actually a lot lower than amounts offered by the tiered
plan at the same price.  What does this
discrepancy mean?

First, the most current definitions of “throttling” and
“data hogs:”

Throttling (verb)

  • AT&T’s
    way of slowing down data service by as much as 99%, essentially making a smart
    phone dumb—customers that have their cell phones throttled will have a very
    hard time accessing data like email or streaming music until the start of the
    next billing cycle. 

Data hogs (noun)

  • The people whose smartphones AT&T throttles,
    or
  • A “very small minority of smartphone customers
    who are on unlimited plans” with “extraordinary level[s] of data usage
    put[ting] them in the top 5% of our heaviest data users in a billing
    period.”  [See AT&T’s press release.]
  • Note: The amount of data usage giving customers
    “data hog” status varies from month to month, and even then, the customer’s
    phone might not be throttled unless the network is congested.

AT&T’s promise that throttling would only impact a “very
small minority of smartphone customers who are on unlimited plans” with
“extraordinary level[s] of data usage put[ting] them in the top 5% of our
heaviest data users in a billing period” leaves a lot to the imagination.  Who are these data super users, and what are
they doing to warrant this special treatment? 

Now we know who at least two of these users are, and reality
is a lot less exciting.

Alleged Data Hog #1: John
Cozen
.  Data usage = 2.1 GB.

        Alleged
Data Hog #2
: Mike Trang.  Data
usage = 2.3 GB.

This small sample set shows that using 2.1 GB to 2.3 GB of
data within a month can put you in the top 5% of data users on AT&T’s
unlimited data plan, make you a data hog, and dramatically increase the risk of
having your phone throttled.  This should
strike you as strange when you realize that AT&T has tiered data plans
allowing more than 2 GB of data per month (for a better sense of what this
amount of data means in real terms, check out WhatIsMyCap.org).  Specifically, AT&T allows its customers 3
GB for $30 per month.  $30 is also the
price that unlimited data customers pay.  
So how can a customer with unlimited data be a data hog that threatens
the very viability of the network for using slightly over 2 GB of data, when a
customer with a limited data plan can use 3 GB of data without consequence for
the same price?

The answer is that no one knows. 

All this confusion makes it difficult to believe anything
AT&T says about the value of imposing data caps.  And it is unclear what value data caps bring
in the first place.  After all, even
AT&T admits that data caps “will not solve our spectrum shortage and
network capacity issues
.”   What is clear
is that blocking internet access by throttling smartphones impedes the goals of
the National Broadband Plan, which seeks to grant more people access to the
internet at faster speeds with more reliable networks.

It is also clear that AT&T is using data caps to manipulate
customers on the unlimited plan to migrate to a tiered plan.  After all, AT&T suggested that customers
like Alleged Data Hoggers #1 and #2 switch from an unlimited plan to a tiered
plan, even though they use their smartphones for legitimate purposes like
checking email and streaming music and remain well under the tiered 3 GB limit.  Throttling then seems like little
more than a ploy to push people off their unlimited data plans, rather than a useful
way to benefit the network.

In order for data providers like AT&T to gain back any
credibility, their reasoning for implementing data caps and throttling data hogs should be transparent.  As we previously requested, AT&T
and other data providers should have to explain:

  • 1) why they limit data at a certain
    amount per month, 
  • 2) how they evaluate the results of
    data capping to determine whether caps meet the goals of the National Broadband
    Plan and help improve spectrum shortage problems, and
  • 3) how they plan to change or
    eliminate data caps that do not promote the National Broadband Plan.    

Until data providers can clearly show how data caps are
useful, data hogs are about as real as flying pigs.