The Data Dilemma for Cell Phone Carriers: To Throttle or Not to Throttle? FTC Seeks to Answer by Suing AT&T Over Speed Limitations for Wireless Customers

Benjamin Borden, MJLST Staff Member

Connecting to the Internet from a mobile device is an invaluable freedom in the modern age. That essential BuzzFeed quiz, artsy instagram picture, or new request on Friendster are all available in an instant. But suddenly, and often without warning, nothing is loading, everything is buffering, and your once treasured piece of hand-held computing brilliance is no better than a cordless phone. Is it broken? Did the satellites fall from the sky? Did I accidentally pick up my friend’s blackberry? All appropriate questions. The explanation behind these dreadfully slow speeds, however, is more often than not a result of data throttling courtesy of wireless service providers. This phenomenon arises from the use of unlimited data plans on the nation’s largest cell phone carriers. Carriers such as AT&T and Verizon phased out their unlimited data plans in 2010 and 2011, respectively. This came just a few years after requiring unlimited data plans for new smartphone purchases. Wireless companies argue that tiered data plans offer more flexibility and better value for consumers, while others suggest that the refusal to offer unlimited data plans is motivated by a desire to increase revenue by selling to data hungry consumers.

Despite no longer offering unlimited data plans to new customers, AT&T has allowed customers who previously signed up for these plans to continue that service. Verizon also allows users to continue, but refuses to offer discounts on new phones if they keep unlimited plans. Grandfathering these users into unlimited data plans, however, meant that wireless companies had millions of customers able to stream movies, download music, and post to social media without restraint, and more importantly, without a surcharge. Naturally, this was deemed to be too much freedom. So, data throttling was born. Once a user of an unlimited data plan goes over a certain download size, 3-5GB for AT&T in a billable month, their speeds are lowered by 80-90% (to 0.15 mbps in my experience). This speed limit makes even the simplest of smartphone functions an exercise in patience.

I experienced this data throttling firsthand and found myself consistently questioning where my so-called unlimited data had escaped to. Things I took for granted, like using Google Maps to find the closest ice cream shop, were suddenly ordeals taking minutes rather than seconds. Searching Wikipedia to settle that argument with a friend about the plot of Home Alone 4? Minutes. Requesting an Uber? Minutes. Downloading the new Taylor Swift album? Forget about it.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) understands this pain and wants to recoup the losses of consumers who were allegedly duped by the promise of unlimited data, only to have their usage capped. As a result, the FTC is suing AT&T for misleading millions of consumers about unlimited data plans. After recently consulting with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Verizon decided to abandon its data throttling plans. AT&T and Verizon argue that data throttling is a necessary component of network management. The companies suggest that without throttling, carrier service might become interrupted because of heavy data usage by a small group of customers.
AT&T had the opportunity to settle with the FTC, but indicated that it had done nothing wrong and would fight the case in court. AT&T contends that its wireless service contracts clearly informed consumers of the data throttling policy and those customers still signed up for the service. Furthermore, there are other cellular service options for consumers that are dissatisfied with AT&T’s terms. These arguments are unlikely to provide much solace to wireless customers shackled to dial-up level speeds.
If there is a silver lining though, it is this: with my phone acting as a paperweight, I asked those around me for restaurant recommendations rather than turning to yelp, I got a better understanding of my neighborhood by finding my way rather than following the blue dot on my screen, and didn’t think about looking at my phone when having dinner with someone. I was proud. Part of me even wanted to thank AT&T. The only problem? I couldn’t tweet @ATT to send my thanks.