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Thanks for nothing AT&T

February 13, 2012

July 11, 2008. The date this tangled web of fun with AT&T begins.

After waiting a few hours outside of an AT&T store, I finally got my hands on an iPhone 3G. I had purposely avoided the first one of a few reasons including the whole “college to a real job” transition and contract hullabaloo. But the day came when I moved from my AT&T feature phone to the brave new world of smartphones.

A few important things about signing up for a data plan in the day of the iPhone 3G:

1) There could be only one: AT&T’s exclusivity agreement with Apple was alive and well. This guaranteed the iPhone wasn’t going on anyone else’s network anytime soon.

2) All or nothing: The contract at the time of the initial iPhone’s release, and for subsequent releases until 2010, required customers sign up for an unlimited data contract. There wasn’t a choice of a few megabytes here or a few gigabytes there. It was all or nothing.

While that $30 plan would practically double my monthly bill, I was under the belief that at least I’d have unlimited access to my data as long as I was an AT&T customer.

Nearly 4 years later, AT&T has proven me wrong.

What I thought was an unlimited data plan, a few reps have explained to me, was actually a “well not really unlimited” data plan. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In August of 2011, AT&T announced they couldn’t possibly keep up with the amount of data usage by smartphone users, so it was going to start throttling the top 5 percent of users. These people were looked upon as the devils of data usage, who would destroy a network from their unhealthy amounts of streaming as they gobbled up gigabytes upon gigabytes of data. Clearly there was no way an average customer could possibly be ensnared in that web.

At the same time, AT&T was also pursuing a deal to acquire T-Mobile and its spectrum. This will be important later.

October, the announced time for the grand data hog slaughter, came and went with little fanfare. It wasn’t until November when AT&T sent me a lovely little notice about halfway through the month:

AT&T Free Msg: Your data usage this month is in the top 5% of users. Use Wi-Fi to help avoid reduced speeds in future bill cycles.

I didn’t think much of it since my billing cycle was about to end in a week. But that Nov. 17 message made me reset my data count on my iPhone, just in case. And it turned out to be the best thing I could have done.

Thanksgiving week brought a surprise: After heavy pressure from the government against the proposed merger, AT&T pulled its bid for T-Mobile.

The morning of Dec. 8 greeted me with a pair of texts before the sun came up. The same benign reminder of my data usage, then the hammer. My data had been throttled.

For those of you who haven’t had the joy of having your data throttled, imagine you’re able to cruise the Internet with speeds around 3 Gbps—roughly the same as a mid-level DSL account. Now let’s slam the brakes on that to dial-up levels. This amazing device that’s supposed to let me surf the web and watch video now chokes on any Web page with an image on it.

Obviously, this infuriated me. I wanted to find out how on earth did I use so much data that AT&T felt the need to throttle me. Remembering I reset the data counter on my phone, I checked the numbers: Between 6-7 GB of combined upload and download traffic since a week before the billing cycle began. I’d used more data than that in the months before and hadn’t received a notice.

I was reminded on Reddit that AT&T had its own tool I could check on my phone. That post is probably one that AT&T will wish never happened. That was when I learned AT&T screwed up badly. Instead of the data I saw I had used on my phone, AT&T’s listing said I used more than 8 GB and was actually closing in on 9.

Time to call AT&T.

It took me four calls, one of which I was hung up on to finally get someone who said they’d investigate it. During one of those calls, an AT&T rep “corrected” me and told me no other cell providers are providing unlimited data for the iPhone. When I told him Sprint did he said they didn’t about four times before finally admitting he hadn’t seen any commercials about it in awhile. I barely watch TV and had just seen one a day or two earlier.

At this point I was halfway through my billing cycle. The investigation would take about a week. I got a call back a few days after the investigation was supposed to be complete, but they ended up kicking the can down the road saying “Well we have to wait for the final numbers to come out.” Eventually, at the end of the month, they credited me $25 for the data, which was slightly satisfying, but still disappointing. Oh and they still had no explanation for the missing data.

Fast-forward to this week when after not even 2 GB of data use this time, AT&T dropped the hammer on me. Amazing how the “top 5 percent” suddenly dropped to 2 GB.

I was able to peel out some more useful data from them this time. I ended up talking with a “manager” who was part of a pool of “managers” with no supervisor above them. Basically his job was to get me to be quiet and accept the fact my data wasn’t coming back to full speed until the end of the cycle.

He explained to me, for starters, that AT&T bases its data use on your billing area. If you happen to be on a family plan in a major city, but your billing area is in a rural area, you’re plopped into the rural zone. He said that everything has to magically be routed through the hub in the billing area before it gets to me. This is extremely important. Rural areas would obviously have a lower instance of data usage than urban areas. He pegged the “average” at around 1 GB for rural areas and 2 GB or so for urban areas. Who knows when he was drawing this data from (i.e. pre or post throttling)?

The general impression he gave was that AT&T was being hit hard by the lack-of-spectrum bug.

But even after I got off the phone with him and after numerous attempts to call and chat with AT&T customer support, there’s still one thing that bugs me.

See, a couple of weeks before my latest throttling, AT&T announced it was being benevolent and expanding its tiered data coverage plans. Now, for the same price as I’m paying for my unlimited plan, AT&T is offering a 3 GB plan with $10 penalties for every GB above that number.  I’m being capped at 2 GB because the network can’t handle it, yet AT&T is able to offer a plan with 50 percent more data than my “unlimited” plan.

On the one hand, you’d think “Oh AT&T is throttling its network because they can’t handle the load.” Yet, it’s offering a larger plan for the same price.

Currently, the only thing keeping me from jumping ship to Sprint—which still has an unlimited plan, despite what an AT&T rep might tell you— is a $135 early-cancellation penalty. Not even the specter of a new iPhone on the horizon would keep me from waiting to make the switch.

Nearly 4 years ago, AT&T signed up as many customers as it could to an unlimited data plan. There was no option to sign up for a smaller plan. It was all or nothing. Now, with a failed merger under its belt, AT&T has decided to take that option back by limiting access to the same features it promotes in its advertisements: Video, photos, Web.

If you’ve faced the same difficulties with AT&T, there is a modicum of hope. You can filed a quick complaint with the FCC about AT&T’s network practices. The form can be found here and can be finished online in 5-10 minutes.

It’s time to hold AT&T accountable for what it’s done.