When the original iPad was released, the 3G version was exclusive to AT&T. Among the data plans offered was an “unlimited” plan that ran for $29.99/month. This plan has since been deprecated; if you bought an iPad after the plan was discontinued, you have to opt for a limited bandwidth tier, while those who had the option for the unlimited plan before are grandfathered in. Today, the largest data plan available through AT&T is 3GB/month, with additional bandwidth costing extra.1 Conveniently, the 3GB plan also costs $29.99/month.
The controversy with the unlimited plan is that AT&T has threatened to throttle bandwidth for unlimited plan subscribers for quite some time. Reports have been varied, and customers wanted a clarification of the rule. Recently, AT&T provided this clarification, stating they would throttle bandwidth for all unlimited plan subscribers after 3GB of bandwidth is consumed in a given month. Once the next billing cycle begins anew, the throttle would be removed, and customers would be back to full-speed data transfers. AT&T’s argument is that they want to ensure that a minority of users are not placing undue burden on the network for the majority, but as Hot Hardware points out, that’s not really the case:
First, AT&T’s bandwidth throttle is based solely on a person’s usage, not their location or the overall demand for bandwidth at any given time. In reality, this is never the case. At 5PM in a downtown metropolitan area, cellular bandwidth will be at an absolute premium — a graveyard shift worker in one of the office buildings at 3 AM has no way to saturate the available spectrum, even if they had a dozen phones.
In other words, AT&T is finding a convenient excuse (that doesn’t hold much water) to charge their early iPad-adopting customers more money than they were initially led to believe. If these customers choose not to switch plans and pony up for more bandwidth in the event they exceed 3GB/month, AT&T throttles the customer’s networks speed by as much as 95%, effectively making the data connection useless.2 AT&T is still technically providing unlimited bandwidth to the customer, only it’s at incredibly low speeds.
An iPhone user in California recently won a small claims court judgement for $850 over this throttling fiasco3, and I would be surprised if others don’t take similar legal actions. Not everyone sees the small claims court victory just, however, like Dan Frommer:
Please get over your emotional battle — and extinguish any legal threats, that’s silly — and join us in reality. If you use a lot of mobile data, be happy about it, and be happy paying for it.
Dan’s argument is just as emotional as the argument of those asking that “unlimited” mean “unlimited bandwidth at maximum speed”; Dan accuses unlimited subscribers of whining, but then whines about how we’re all hurting his precious network. But as Hot Hardware points out, high-bandwidth users aren’t necessarily adversely affecting the network; for AT&T to justly throttle a user’s speeds, the burden of proof needs to be on them to show that a user’s network use was affecting the network in a negative way, but they’re not doing that. The reality is AT&T trying to underhandedly change the terms of its original $29.99/month plan by convincing the majority of its customers that they would be negatively impacted otherwise.
The assumption Dan makes (and those who back him in this) is not just that unlimited-plan subscribers are hammering network speeds for everyone else, but that they’re consistently using more than 3GB of data each month. To our knowledge, AT&T hasn’t provided any evidence of this either, and from an anecdotal perspective, we don’t believe this to be the case; we’ve been on the unlimited plan since pretty much day one, and most months, don’t come close to reaching 3GB.4 We may never exceed the 3GB cap each month, and if we have, it’s incredibly rare. This means that most months, we pay more than what we use, and would be surprised to hear it’s much different for many other unlimited plan subscribers. In effect, we’re putting more into the network than the average consumer, and so if we happen to exceed the 3GB cap one month, shouldn’t we morally be allowed to get away with it? Maybe Dan should be thanking us instead of calling us whiners.
AT&T has a rollover minutes plan for their cell phones, which seems reasonably fair: if you don’t use all your minutes in a given month, the surplus will be added to your next month’s minutes (to a limit) for you to use later. Maybe AT&T should do something like this for data. But that would be fair.
Subscribers on the 3GB plan pay $10/GB after their base 3GB is consumed. ↩
Throttling speeds this much means the customer is getting much less than even EDGE speeds. ↩
Early iPhone adopters were also offered an unlimited plan by AT&T, and are similarly grandfathered in. ↩
It’s a matter of convenience for me; I don’t want to keep a close eye on the amount of data I’m using, nor risk an overage charge that would make a higher tier more practical. The iPad exemplifies ease-of-use and a no-hassle experience, and I don’t believe its data connectivity should be any different. ↩