AT&T limits ‘unlimited’ data customers

“Not too long ago AT&T began sending iPhone customers text messages notifying them they were using what the carrier considered too much data,” James Kendrick reports for ZDNet. “These customers were owners of unlimited data plans, normally a plan that would be safe from hitting a cap.”

“AT&T told the customers if they remained in the top 5 percent of data users in their particular area they would throttle speeds for the rest of that billing period,” Kendrick reports. “True to its word, customers started seeing bandwidth drop to the point of being largely unusable.”

Kendrick reports, “Customers with an existing unlimited plan were grandfathered in, and it’s clear AT&T didn’t like that one bit. The throttling is a direct result of the carrier’s trying to force unlimited customers onto a ‘more reasonable’ tiered monthly plan… As if the throttling wasn’t chicken enough, AT&T refuses to tell the customers how much data they are allowed before getting lousy dial-up speeds imposed. According to AT&T they are throttling the top 5 percent of data users in a given area. That definition is meaningless to the customers affected.”

Read more in the full article here.


  1. Yes, AT&T isn’t explaining things well enough, but these people are not using their phones normally. I am willing to be that the top 5 percent are using their phones and unlimited plans for unauthorized tethering. AT&T wants these people to switch to the 3 GB plan. That way, they will pay the same, and they will be easier to catch.

    1. Not true. I stream Netflix and video from home at work and I got hit. Even at netflix’s lowest quality you can get about 10-20 tv show episodes a month…still pretty lame

    2. What dubious criteria do you use for “Normal” usage on a phone designed to do just about everything? A heavy Instagram user could easily run over 3GB. Just syncing to the cloud can run over too.

      How can you rationalize “Unlimited” data meaning less than 3Gb? Unlimited means just that, people pay for unlimited, they expect UNLIMITED.

      Is it any wonder corporate America is so screwed up with mental midgets justifying their deceptive behaviors. “Unlimited” customers (who pay more btw) are now experiencing the classic “bait and switch”.

    3. A couple of years ago my wife got an iPhone 3, We figured she wouldn’t be using much data so we signed up for the 250MB plan from AT&T.
      On vacation we use her iPhone for directions on our trip. I was only for about an hour and a half using Google maps.
      Later she received an email form our granddaughter. That email was followed by one from AT&T informing us that we went over her data limit and that we could sign up for the 2GB plan to avoid overage charges.
      I checked the data usage on her iPhone and it showed about 1.5 GB. Turns out that just using the google maps for the hour and a half put her over the limit.
      I then calculated the overage charges and they came out to over $450. Needles to say we opted for the 2GB data plan.
      Without an unlimited data plan an iPhone is not an iPhone. It might as well be a Motorola Flip-Phone.

      1. I find this incredible. We travel in our motor home often and use the Google maps on our iPhones constantly. We have never had any kind of warning nor noticed any slowdown of service. We drive up to 8 hours a day with Google maps on all the time. Something is strange with either your experience or ours.

    4. The clear response has to be that all “unlimited” customers must band together to raise the bar to achieve “top 5%” status very high. Everyone with an unlimited plan should strive to double their data use each month for the next six months. Help ATT find a new “normal”.

    5. A guy at work got the text warning, and he is 100% legit.

      He is Romanian, and streams Romanian radio in his car.

      When the throttling kicks in, he can’t stream audio over 3G.

      This is ridiculous!

      Steve Jobs would be screaming like a smashed cat at AT&T for this.

      At the very least, there needs to be a class action suit brought against them for breach of contract.

      1. I was heavily streaming music through Rdio for a few months. We were renovating our new home and did not have internet hooked up yet. I used between 3-4GB/month working on site 6h a day with constant streaming.

        I’m on a 2GB plan, so I paid for the extra GBs each month.
        If I had an unlimited plan and they had throttled me, I would have had no recourse in terms of data.

        I do not understand how they can sell someone an unlimited plan, then throttle it to the point of not being usable. In my opinion, that is a deceptive business practice. I’m not sure why they grandfathered these people into unlimited in the first place (it was nice, but shortsighted), but since they did, they should be honoring it. If they cannot do that, then provide a financial incentive to switch, rather than a punitive one, which this clearly is.

  2. This sort of stuff should be illegal. AT&T should at least allow unlimited to reach 3gigs before they throttle them.

    I can’t see how AT&T is still struggling to handle the load on it’s network. It’s had the iPhone since 2007. It should be investing most all it’s money back into the network instead of the corporate bonus pool.

  3. While I’m not one of those who get all white hot with rage at carriers for limiting data consumption, what AT&T is doing is positively idiotic. There is no way for a customer to guess how much is too much in his area, how soon he’ll be throttled, and exactly how slow that slow speed is supposed to be. How is one supposed to make a personal (or worse yet, business) decision based on that?

    Presumably, when you hit that arbitrary limit, you’re taken off that 3G and down to EDGE. However, the article implies that the throttled speed is even significantly slower than the typical EDGE speed (“dial-up speeds” tend to be in the neighbourhood of 45-50kbps, while EDGE seems to manage some 200kbps (almost sufficient for slowest YouTube bitrate), and recently even faster (up to 400kbps). For this lack of clarity, AT&T deserves all the crap it gets.

    I don’t think for one moment, though, that those screaming about it would change their tone even if AT&T were completely transparent, upfront and specific regarding throttling regions, data limits and throughput limits…

            1. Verizon also has legacy unlimited plans from people who had them with Alltel ( I used to have an unlimited 3G MiFi) and NO CONTRACT that Verizon consented to to clear the DoJ.

              Specifically bought one without contract for the open ended data.

    1. I don’t think there is anything “orwelian” in the definition. Those who are still on unlimited plans can still consume unlimited amount of data. Those on limited plans get charged extra for every MB of data they consume beyond their plan. Unlimited users will NEVER get charged extra, no matter how much data they consume. AT&T is just making it much more difficult for them to consume significantly more than those on metered plans.

      1. So you pay for 3G service and an UNLIMITED data plan, and AT&T deciding that you are using too much data and throttling you to less than 3G speeds is OK?

        What the heck is wrong with your reasoning ability? IF unlimited data is too much of a burden, it shouldn’t be offered. It’s deceptive, greedy, and just plain not right. This is NOT how HONEST business is done.

        When you signed up for the more expensive plan AT&T does not tell you: “Well, the data is unlimited, but after 3GB we are gonna make it so slow it is impossible to do much?

        Does that really sound like a good customer service? Do you really think it’s reasonable?

        1. Well, that’s precisely what I said (I believe the word I used was “idiotic”).

          T-mobile offers unlimited pre-paid plans at several tiers: $50, $60 and $70. They are all unlimited everything (talk/text/web), but with different throttling limits (100MB / 2GB / 5GB). It is clearly stated what is offered, at what price and with what limitations. AT&T might want to take a quick look at the competition to learn how it’s done.

      2. The problem with what AT&T is doing is that they did not sell the unlimited iPhone plans with any throttling conditions applied. There was no, “Unlimited Data, unless you get to 3GB, at which point you can keep using data but it will be really, really slow” warnings.

      3. Throttling, in case you hadn’t noticed, is a limit on your data service. It didn’t say “unlimited amounts of data,” it said “unlimited data plan.” Putting artificial limits on an “unlimited” plan is, IMNTBHO, actionable.

        1. If you look at your AT&T contract, with which you agreed when you activated your service, AT&T does NOT GUARANTEE bandwidth, nor availability. Your unlimited data usage essentially means you can suck as much data as you possibly can and they won’t charge you any extra, as there are no limits. Depending on the network and other factors, the speed at which you are downloading those unlimited amounts of data may be slower (whether due to network congestion or other factors, such as artificial throttling).

          It would be extremely difficult for anyone to claim damages in court over this one, and AT&T surely knows this.

          As I said, T-Mobile did this right: three pricing tiers for three throttling plans, but all unlimited data. You know exactly what you get, and nobody is complaining.

  4. Comcast does the same thing. They won’t tell you how much is “too much”, but if exceed that amount, whatever it is, they throttle your upload/download speed. Miserable, greedy beggars!

  5. @Drew… your assumption is weak… I am in the top 5 percent and I don’t tether. I use my phone the way it was designed to be used. There is nothing illegal, jai broken, unlocked, or anything like that on my phone.
    You are completely wrong.

    1. Yes, they either offer them to the truest sense of the word “unlimited” or they don’t. Take away unlimited plans if not, don’t be disingenuous or weasely. Or a policy change that says something definitive like after 5Gb of data your speed will be lowered to 2G under the older unlimited plans. Some kind of policy everyone understands.

  6. 5% makes absolutely no sense. Every month there will some people that will fall in the top 5%. Say you only had 100 people, where the first person uses 1Mb, the second 2Mb, and so on. The 100th uses only 100Mb, but would still be in the top 5%. So they will now be throttled. Stupid.

  7. Hey, cut AT&T some slack! They’re installing new hot data tanks as quickly as they can. It’s entirely unfair when one person can just use up all the hot data first thing in the morning and leave the rest of us to shiver. Just dial back the hot data usage a bit and when the new tanks are installed we can all share the love!

    1. Sorry, but my charges don’t go down when I use less data – and if I use less data, they’ll have less incentive to build out their network. In business, if you make a promise, you either live up to it, refund some money, or go out of business. Besides, AT&T hasn’t asked us to do that – they’ve simply imposed throttling. Sounds adversarial, not conciliatory, to me.

    2. NO NO NO – Don’t cry to me about fair, I am paying for UNLIMITED DATA and 3G service on four iPhones. If AT&T doesn’t have the capacity to deliver what they have sold me (and everyone else) and are charging for they are a FRAUD. So what then is their motivation for overselling and under-delivering? My conclusion: GREED.

      I don’t really see it as a capacity issue anyway, that data is cumulative. Theoretically, I do not see how it makes one bit of difference to anyone else how much data I have used in a month. How is 3GB the magic number? Explain to me how after three GB other users are affected? BS

Reader Feedback

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.