Can You Hear Me OW!?! AT&T Continuing Their Heavy-Handed Assault on Unlimited Data Plans


Much has been written about AT&T now warning the “top 5% of iPhone data users” on unlimited plans that they would begin seeing their data speeds slowed because of their adverse affect on the network as a whole. At first pass most would think that meant individuals streaming video constantly and using up tens of gigabytes of data. That isn’t the case. In a month where I have been switching on and off between the iPhone 4S and the Titan (in other words using my iPhone far LESS than normal), I got the above warning.

“Uh Oh!” I thought to myself, I must have used HUGE amounts of data, despite not using the iPhone all that much. Well, as it turns out, that just isn’t the case.

AT T 1

The last bill I went just over 2GB. That’s it. How that puts me in the “top 5% of data users” in the Metro NY area is beyond me, especially when the majority of their data plans offer 3-5GB per month.

Of course that’s not what this is about. This is…


Yes, AT&T wants you to keep paying the same amount, but put as much of your data usage on WiFi (and hence OFF their network) or get off the unlimited plan entirely. THAT is the real goal as they make perfectly clear when they write…

You may also consider switching to a tiered data plan if speed is more important to you than having an unlimited data plan. Customers on tiered plans can pay for more data if they need it, and will not see reduced speeds.

My unlimited plan is $30 a month. New iPhone users can get 3GB of data for the same price. If the company triggered the warning at 3GB I wouldn’t find this as annoying as it is. But they didn’t. No, when my usage crossed the 2GB mark ***BAM*** I got the warning.

Sadly, AT&T has already won. They have already accomplished their goal. After all, when the warning gets triggered a full GB BELOW the 3GB tiered plan’s cap “Unlimited” has already become meaningless. Oh how I wish there were a better option so I could tell them where to stick their data warnings …


UPDATE: A dear friend who is quite knowledgable on this (make of that what you will) emailed me the following.

To be fair, the top 5% is calculated based on usage, and the majority of customers use less than 1gb.  

When they calculate the top 5%, its only of people with unlimited, not on tiered plans.

In fact, only a small % of users opt for the 4gb/5gb plans.  

They want you to use wifi, and thats why they provide 27,000 wifi hotspots for people to use….


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27 replies

  1. Not honoring signed contract is one thing, but setting an arbitrary cap on “unlimited” data below the level they are currently offering for limited data is plain stupid. AT&T is treating its customers like a moron. With this along with increased upgrade fee (why do we need to pay this fee in the first place?), it seems AT&T is aiming to lose as many customers as possible to clean its network. Brilliant! 

    In the mean time, I cancelled my AT&T account a few months ago and moved to T-Mobile monthly 4g. I get unlimited (aka 5GB) data with tethering for $30/m, and the plan happens to have 100 min voice and unlimited texts as well. I’m very happy with the service (and thank God, the acquisition has failed.) My only regret is I haven’t jump shipped earlier. 

    • Totally agreed on this. T-Mobile is a great carrier, and I’m glad they’re still independent. Francis still loves them too. We both have the 5GB unlimited w/ free tethering, and it is quite fast.

  2. Do they mean the top 5% of ALL users or just users who have unlimited data plans?  I am on a fixed plan (4GB) and I haven’t gotten a message like that, but, to be fair, my usage is lower this month (not my usual).  I’ve been in WiFi areas a lot this month which has kept my usage down.  I’m suspecting they are going to limit warnings to unlimited users, but I am curious if their 5% refers to ALL users or just those on unlimited plans.

  3. AT&T is one of my least favorite companies in the world!

    • In all fairness they’re all pretty lousy. I detested Verizon when they were our carrier.

      • I agree – I rate AT&T as mediocre.  I have had bad service with ALL the big 4 U.S. carriers.  None of them – nope not even T-Mo – really service customers very well.

      • I love Verizon … because of the signal.  They were brutal in ’09 when I got my Droid and wanted to check out the HTC Touch Pro 2. In store they said I could order and return … but suddenly when I wanted to do that, I was met with a brickwall of number of returns … I had to get really ‘animated’ and go up the food chain quite a bit to get results.

      • Interestingly, though, Verizon has a similar policy but they only throttle your data if you are connected to a tower that is already rather congested. Connect to a tower with low data usage and you get normal data speeds. AT&T throttles you no matter what.

    • My big issue with this is how incredibly disingenuous they are. They want to get rid of unlimited users. So they say, “yes, but you’re among the top 5% of users on an unlimited plan.” As if to say, “wow, what a data hungry selfish jerk you are.”
      But if I can be in the top 5% of all unlimited users and only use a tiny bit over 2 GB of the data that’s a whole different story. That’s more data than most people but it’s not a ridiculous amount of data. So they are using the text of “the top 5% of unlimited users” because that sounds really bad where as if they said, “you used to gigabytes of an unlimited package” it’s a whole different story and perception process that comes into play.
      They’re playing a game because they want to get rid of unlimited data users. So they should simply get rid of it and deal with the fallout.
      And again I want to note that I think I would be less annoyed if they sent me this at 3 GB of data since the $30 I give them each month on a tiered plan gives me, yes that’s right, 3 GB of data. I’m at full gigabyte below where the $30 level is normally.

      • I have to agree with this.  The problems I have with AT&T (and others) is that they are disingenuous.  AT&T, for example, claims they “can’t” unlock iPhones – no way no how.  Technically, this is true because Apple unlocks them in their IMEI database, but all AT&T has to do is request it from Apple.  By policy they won’t.  This means that they CAN but WON’T.   Why not just say they WON’T?  Why play the technicality game and say that they CAN’T?  Do they think people can’t see right through it?  

        I’d switch, but none of the U.S. carriers are any better (in my experience).  They all have their weaknesses and flaws.

        •  I think that is one thing that makes me so angry. If there was a better option for me, I would switch in a heartbeat. Unfortunately they are the only affordable Internet in town and my recent switch to U-verse has not been a good experience.

          • LOL – I had to go with U-Verse when I moved and the experience was far superior to my experiences with Comcast.  That’s not saying much though!

        • Funny thing is that they are legally required to unlock phones (if not exclusives). They do for every other phone. Just not the iPhone. Ironic that now with the iPhone 4S you can easily unlock the GSM SIM in Verizon and Sprint versions, which make them work well overseas.

      • This is completely nuts. I cannot believe they are doing this for 2GB of data. On T-Mobile, I use at least 3 – 4 GB per month (usually downloading podcasts, etc. on the go). This is nothing other than trying to get people off the “unlimited plans”. When I was overseas and my credit card was marked as “stolen”, they canceled and wouldn’t let me reinstate my iPad unlimited 3G plans. I told them I would cancel all my lines with them due to this and did. Never been happier.

  4. Personally, I’m impressed that someone actually managed to go over 2 GB a month on AT&T’s HSPA+ network.  Where I am located (close to a University where AT&T’s data bandwidth is choked on a constant basis), I’m not sure I could get over 2 GB even if was trying my darnedest!

  5. I coined the term Throttlegate today when trying to intelligently & calmly discuss this in an AT&T store. Bottom line: They don’t care: They don’t care if you cancel (they get your early termination fee), they don’t care if you complain (it does no good & they won’t give you an honest answer anyway), they don’t care if you go with another carrier (they have the fastest network available for the iPhone (for now because it’s not LTE). AT&T spent the money to upgrade their crumbling network, they are now going to extract those costs from their long time customers. I am working toward taking them to arbitration as per their TOS you can’t even sue them.

  6. My suggestion is to go unbranded. If you want to be a poweruser and do what you want, you can do it on the unl non-smartphone plan for 10 or 15. I’ve used an unbranded sgs for 2 months with over 10gb each month.

  7. While I understand your frustration – the reality is – the free buffet has to end sometime.  AT&T has been extremely generous in grandfathering in unlimited users.  I’ve heard many cases of users who let their credit cards lapse, missed a payment – etc – things that would normally get them kicked off the grandfathered plan – and AT&T has made an exception and accommodated them.

    The issue of congestion, slow speeds, dropped connections are present with every carrier and no one is going to handle them all in a way that makes the customer delighted.  It is what it is.

    This is no different from back in the days when carriers offered unlimited roaming to customers and then terminated the contracts of those who roamed excessively.  Did that violate their promise to those customers?  Sure – but the fact is, if you are an unprofitable customer for a company, they are going to find a way to make you profitable or point you to a different vendor.  AT&T is no different from the guy at the local buffet – telling the guy on his 4th trip up – to finish up and be done.

    And I know – you only hit 2gb – this was a low month for you.  I get all that – big picture – the days of all you can eat data at one price are gone.  How they get you to accept that may be a positive or negative experience – but, those days are gone.

    • That’s all good and well and we all know that the data congestion is an issue. NOONE is arguing that. But if you are going to make the change in an attempt to fix things do it in a clear, aboveboard way. This isn’t. Simply end the unlimited plan and take the hit when people are upset rather than playing these games. Simple and… respectful to the consumer.
      And by the way, I never showed what my on-going data use is so you have no way of knowing that “

    • “free buffet has to end sometime”

      Really?  Why?  Please provide me the data. 

      Also, who gets this stuff ‘free’?  Our rates have not dropped, associated fees continue to increase, anything related to retention incentives have disappeared.  They build up infrastructure because they HAVE TO to meet customer need.  AT&T bled customers for a while, and those like Dan who hung on are rewarded by being treated like crap.

      There is frankly no reason for limited internet of any sort – particularly in infrastructure rich areas.  If you want to maintain customers, you do what is required to keep them.  If you really don’t care, you … well, you do this sort of thing and hope there are enough apologists like you to keep feeding them more and more money for less and less service.

      • Mike, great points but you forgot to ask how long he’s worked for AT&T and in what department. (I keed I keed. )
        “free” is the new definition of ” I give them $250 a month”

        • I give them $350+ a month for 4 lines, only two of which may or may not have “significant data usage”. I’ll be damned if I am going to give any company over $4200 a year for mobile phone service and data; in fact, I think I need to figure out how I can pare back. This is getting beyond ridiculous! =/

          • Michael – the data about the end of unlimited is implied in the actions of all the wireless carriers in the US.  Even Sprint – who for a long time tried to play “unlimited” as a competitive advantage, has recently come out and indicated that throttling is in the future.  If it was profitable to stay unlimited, you would think someone would.

            I think you fast forward 18 months and this will be a non-issue.  4G infrastructure will be more robust, 4G phones will be usable (battery life wise) and the switch will be underway to move to Voice over IP – and so all you’ll buy is a data plan – at hopefully reasonable prices.

            Sorry – don’t work for AT&T or any related industry.  Actually as big a gadget guy as most of you.  I just try not to look at every change in the landscape as being “evil”, heavy handed, or being screwed by the corporate fat cats.  I’m no happier about paying the data rates that I do than anyone.  I’m also less than thrilled about the 22% in taxes that I get hit with on my bill every month.

            I agree with you 100% Michael and Dan on the need for better customer service, and the clear lack of it in how AT&T is proceeding.  They aren’t handling this right – at all.  I’m only trying to lend a more open mined (naive??) view of what is happening.  I will say, I do remember the days when you go no warning text or otherwise that you had gone over your data plan or minutes per month – and have more than once opened a bill that was nearly twice what I expected because of overage charges.  So some things are getting better.

            • Good points Mike.

              Sorry – don’t work for AT&T; or any related industry.

              I figured… Just couldn’t resist. :)

            • Very much agree with all of that … just had to call you on the ‘free buffet’ analogy. Personally I look at the reality as being that customer demand outstrips the ability to grow infrastructure. They need to enhance capacity and speed of 3G for everyone while also working to grow 4G … and all of this requires replacing outdated towers, switches, lines and on and on … expensive and time consuming.

              One the the reasons I liked the thought of Republic Wireless was the comparison of their $19 a month ‘unlimited’ plan compared to the $9.99 dumbphone lines we have for our kids … that end up at $17 a month (even without phone insurance)!

              Definitely remember the ‘bill shock’ days … ugh!