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My notes and information about the ATT Free Msg: Your data usage is among the top 5% of users. Data speeds for this bill cycle may be reduced.

(Note: if AT&T’s throttling is affecting you too, please follow me on twitter as I’ll be continuing to broadcast my investigation there)

Looks like AT&T has a new system to rid itself of the remaining unlimited data plan accounts: throttling.

Last month, I got a troubling text message from the cell phone carrier with some news — not one of their updates to let me know that the card on file has expired — this was something new, something domineering in its faux-friendly tone.

ATT Free Msg: Your data use is approaching the top 5% of users. Avoid reduced data speeds, use Wi-Fi where available. Visit att.com/dataplans or call 8663447584.

A confusing message — I’ve been with AT&T since the early iPhone days, and still have their unlimited data plan. Who were these “top 5%?” What type of use were they seeing? Had someone hacked into my phone account and started torrenting BlueRay movies? I checked my data usage for the month: a very mediocre  2.4gb — and this was about three weeks into the billing cycle (btw, I’m on a family plan, but data is reported separately).

Three days later, it happened. I officially joined the five-percenters, as announced by another, almost identically worded, ATT free text message:

ATT Free Msg: Your data usage is among the top 5% of users. Data speeds for this bill cycle may be reduced. Visit att.com/dataplans or call 8663447584.

For the rest of that day, things seemed fine. But one day later, my phone became nearly unusable for any type of communication other than making calls (and it’s well documented how unreliable calls can be on AT&T). My downloading data speeds took a nosedive from a very useable 3G, straight past Edge, and into some nether-data-region that had the patience-mocking feel of trying to carry an internet connection via Morse code. I believe this is what some call 2G.

The SpeedTest iPhone app keeps a record of your previous tests. Here's my big speed drop. Before getting throttled: 4.14 Mbps; after: 0.04 Mbps.

Interestingly, upload speeds weren’t as affected, but uploading data doesn’t help much when you’re on the road, trying to load a map of where you are and where you need to be.

Due to the work I do, AT&T’s simply suggested “connect to wifi” solution wasn’t applicable for me — nor do I think that someone should have to pay AT&T twice to use one device. I called and was connected with a very friendly representative (I can only imagine the size of their call centers), who was very thankful for my patient tone and for being respectful to her (what can I say, I’m a nice guy).

In our call, she gave me some interesting information:

– These “top 5% of users” messages are only being sent to those with unlimited data plans. Tiered data plan contract holders (3GB and 5GB, currently) are money makers for AT&T with $10/GB after using the allotment, and therefore aren’t factored into the 5% of data users.
– The average iPhone owner uses 2gb of data a month (receiving my notification at 2.4gb, this must be an extremely steep bell curve).
– The group that the data use is compared to isn’t national — it’s regional. But the representative didn’t know what the size of the region was (city-wide? neighborhood?). That means that someone in Manhattan is being compared to an entirely different usage pattern than someone, say, in Barrow Alaska.

She agreed that it seemed odd that my alert was being sent at just 2.4gb. She had been on the phone with customers experiencing the same issue all day, and said some of them were in the 50gb range — and agreed that speaking with a manager could help me uncover some useful information. A request was placed to have someone call me back in 72 hours.


Of course, that call never came, and although the next week of my smartphone-needing life was absolute hell on earth, I made it through. And then the month ended and my sentence was lifted, and all was forgotten. For three more weeks, that is, until, this time at a lower point, I received the same text message from AT&T. See, their system has a sneaky hook to it — with each month’s throttling of the top 5%, the bar is forced lower. Over time, the users that are trying to stay below the top 5% will eventually squeeze themselves in to obliteration. And the most devilish part of all is that these “unlimited” users are paying more than “2GB” plan users do, but get just about the same amount of data. Pretty soon, it will be less, much less. And then we’ll gladly swap over to the 3GB or 5GB plans, and AT&T can charge us $10 per GB that we go over. Which isn’t hard to do, especially as phones get smarter, music apps like Spotify get bigger, and streaming video gets more high-def.

The throttling of your smartphone speeds is AT&T’s very real way of making sure you don’t use more data than their “limited” plans allow. The $30 “unlimited” plan costs the same as their new 3GB data plans (recently upgraded from 2GB — but $10 more as well). At 56Kbs (0.056Mbs, roughly the speed of 2G) , you would have to wait 4 minutes 59 seconds to view the 2mb photo that your friend emailed you of their dog sleeping in a hamper, compared to 10 seconds at 2Mbps. Not many people have this type of patience. When AT&T sends emails to the unlimited data users after 2.4GB of usage, you know they’ve done the math.

What are the options? More calls to AT&T service managers. Checking when my contract expires. Looking at data plan options with Verizon (even worse) and Sprint (still unlimited, but not a great reputation so far). It’s a frustrating corner to get stuck in. I’ll update more as I keep gathering details.

UPDATE: Twitter user @BFE4Life sent info he’s gathered about the regional user groups: “my particular region is Pacific Coast, and it’s two hours to the nearest beach…to give you an idea of region size.”

UPDATE 2: I’m curious about those who have received this notification: how much data did you use before receiving it (approximately), how many days before the end of the cycle did you get it, and what area are you located in? Please let me know in the comments.

So far I have myself at 2.4gb, 10 days before the end of the month, plus one person in Indianapolis with 5.1GB (10 days prior as well), and another person at 5GB in SF (unsure of time beforehand).

UPDATE 3: Some commenters have heard AT&T say that “Top 5%” is anyone over 2GB. From what I’m seeing in the comments and on the reddit page that links to this post, many of the message-receiving users are similarly in the 2GB-2.4GB range, with some as low as 1.6GB, and a few around 5GB (as mentioned above). This appears to indicate that AT&T is targeting those users to keep their data about or less than those on the tiered plans.

And, as twitter user BFE4Life mentioned in the comments, part of the issue here isn’t that AT&T is stripping loyal users of access to a service they’ve agreed to provide, it’s that when the throttling program was announced a few months ago, they vilified the top users as using so much data that it was causing network congestion problems for the rest of their smartphone customers.