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

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.

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