AT&T clears up when “unlimited” plans hit the brakes

AT&T 3GB Data Throttling Plan Text Message

AT&T has clarified exactly who will be affected by its decision to throttle data speeds for smartphone users still on old “unlimited” plans. If you consume more than 3GB of data a month, expect your download speeds to plummet once you hit that mark, but if you have an LTE smartphone, you can go all the way to 5GB a month before AT&T slams on the brakes.AT&T 3GB Data Throttling Plan Text Message

The move affects the dwindling number of customers who are still on AT&T’s unlimited plans, which it phased out in 2010 in favor of tiered data plans that charge you extra should you surpass those limits. Around the same time, it also started reducing the download speeds of users who exceeded a vague amount that was defined as more than the data consumed by “the top 5 percent” of its customers. It’s worth noting that AT&T lost a small-claims court case last week over throttling, which could have prompted other customers to launch their own suits.

In practice, the loosely defined limit worked out to about 2GB of data a month, which is definitely on the high end but curiously lower than what AT&T allows you to consume with no throttling (3GB) on its new mid-level tiered plan. AT&T has now brought its older unlimited data plans in line with its new tiered plans: as our Kevin Fitchard pointed out last month, the former policy didn’t really make any sense.

According to Nielsen, the heaviest smartphone data users in the U.S.–those aged 25-34–used an average of 578MB a month in the third quarter of 2011, so these caps offer a lot of headroom for the average user. But data consumption is growing sharply, especially as more and more people start watching video on their mobile devices: AT&T told its customers that they’ll blow through about 308MB in an hour by streaming HD video over its network.

This likely won’t end confusion over AT&T’s policies either, given its short-sighted decision to brand both its HSPA+ network and its LTE network as “4G” networks. If you’ve got a “4G” HSPA+ smartphone, you get 3GBs a month before throttling kicks in, 2GBs less than a “4G” LTE phone is allowed. Should make for some fun conversations in AT&T retail stores and call centers.

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