AT&T 'Throttles' Heaviest Data Users

Throttling is a way for the cell phone company to limit its unlimited customers. Bloomberg technology columnist Rich Jaroslovsky talks to David Greene about what AT&T has been doing to customers who use the most data.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's talk now about a different kind of traffic jam: traffic jams on the information highway. All that data flowing through broadband Internet networks is prompting mobile phone companies to throttle some of their customers, especially the heaviest users.

We called up Rich Jaroslovsky, the technology columnist for Bloomberg News and a regular guest here on MORNING EDITION, and we asked him to explain data throttling.

RICH JAROSLOVSKY: It's basically a way for the carriers to limit their unlimited customers. What they're doing is basically saying OK, we're not going to limit your data usage. But if you reach a certain threshold, if you are one of the 5 percent heaviest users on your unlimited data plan, we're going to slow you down. It's kind of like if you rented a car that had unlimited miles, but after you've gone a hundred miles, the car won't go any faster than 30.

GREENE: I just want to make sure I understand this correctly. I buy an unlimited plan - a few years ago, from a company like AT&T. I think that I'm grandfathered in; I can use as much data as I want. Suddenly, the company is saying, we're going to slow you down to a snail's pace. You're not going to be able to download videos, anything for this billing cycle.

Is this fair? I mean, do customers have a beef if they're complaining?

JAROSLOVSKY: Well, customers certainly do have a beef. They bought these unlimited plans with the idea that they would be truly unlimited. And, in fact, there are - some anectodal evidence that unlimited customers are actually feeling the bite of this slowdown at very low levels of usage, and it would actually make more sense for them to buy a limited plan. They'd get better service if they had a limited plan, and more data before they got affected.

GREENE: Well, let's talk about the motivation here. I mean, it sounds like, from what you just said, these companies might be trying to use this to push customers off these unlimited plans and get them onto, you know, limited plans, if it would make them more money.

JAROSLOVSKY: That's exactly what's going on. The principal company involved here is probably AT&T. Because of the long period where it had exclusivity on the iPhone and iPad, it has a lot of unlimited customers - quote, unlimited, unquote.

GREENE: Right.,

JAROSLOVSKY: So they're really the principal ones affected here.

GREENE: They've been the most aggressive - I was doing some reading. A company like Verizon is saying, OK, if you're using a tower that is getting crowded, we might knock you off. But AT&T, actually, if you're one of their top 5 percent users in terms of, you know, downloads and so forth, they're saying: We're going to knock you down to this really slow pace for the rest of an entire billing cycle.

I mean, that sounds really aggressive.

JAROSLOVSKY: It is, and there have been a lot of customer complaints about it. The process seems very opaque. You don't really know what the limit is until you get very close to it, and then you get a very unwelcome text message from AT&T that says: Hey, guess what? You're in big trouble.

GREENE: What's the company saying? I mean, have they been responding to these complaints from customers?

JAROSLOVSKY: Their argument is that they really need this to provide decent service to everybody else. And they do have a legitimate point. As anybody who's been a longtime AT&T customer knows, the network has just been overwhelmed, and they are pouring enormous amounts of money into improving the network.

But it seems that the more they pour into improving the network, the more - particularly - Apple users end up using it. So they're in this kind of an endless race.

GREENE: You said mostly Apple customers are bearing the brunt of this. Why is that?

JAROSLOVSKY: Well, it's mostly AT&T customers, and it's because there are so many of them with these grandfathered unlimited plans, which they got with their original iPhones and iPads. So they're really the ones that are the most affected here.

But study after study also shows that Apple device users use much more data than Android users - or than anybody else. So AT&T, which has an awful lot of Apple device users, is the one that's most affected.

GREENE: All right. Rich Jaroslovsky is the technology columnist for Bloomberg, and he often joins us on MORNING EDITION. Good to talk to you again, Rich.

JAROSLOVSKY: Thank you.

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