Friday, 24 February 2012

Why exactly do carriers throttle the top 5% of data users again?


You know the usual explanation: Carriers throttle their top data users to prevent network congestion. In other words, those power users with unlimited plans that like to gobble up obscene amounts of data are made to suffer somewhat so that everyone else won’t have to suffer through a network slowdown. Which makes perfect sense, except that apparently it simply isn’t true.
Cell phone bill “optimization” specialist Validas examined a sample of over 55,000 cell phone bills from the U.S., and what they discovered is that the top 5% of unlimited data plans (the people who get throttled) use almost exactly the same amount of data as the top 5% of tiered data plan users. Put another way, the only difference between the people being throttled and those who aren’t is that the throttled users are still on grandfathered unlimited plans.

So, um, why exactly do carriers throttle the top 5  of data users again?
So it appears that throttling is little more than a stick being wielded by some carriers to cajole unlimited data plan users to switch to tiered plans. It’s important to note that we can’t paint all the U.S. carriers with the same wide brush here; T-Mobile is up front about throttling after 5 GBs of use, which only applies to a very small number of users, and has the effect of making “unlimited” plans basically 5 GB per month plans with slowed access thereafter. Sprint maintains that they don't throttle data use, except in cases of network abuse.

Verizon says they only throttle the top 5% of unlimited data users based on local network need, and they stop throttling when network congestion relaxes (e.g. at night). Of course we have only their word to go on, but this would seem like a more measured response. On the other hand, a blanket throttle (even a temporary one) of 5% of all unlimited users still is little more than a temporary punishment for having maintained an unlimited data plan.

AT&T has even less of a defense; their policy not only allows them to throttle the top 5% of data unlimited data users (despite not using significantly more data than tiered customers) but they implement this throttling after just 2GB of use - while tiered data plan users can use 3 GB of data without seeing a slowdown. Worse, once throttled a customer will continue to get throttled data for the remainder of the billing cycle. So unlimited data plan owners may find themselves at greatly reduced network speeds for an extended period, despite committing no crime greater than not having a tiered data plan.

We think that stinks. To be sure, every network has instances of users that gobble truly disproportionate amounts of data (10-20 GB or more) and we can understand if those users must be throttled during times of heavy load to ensure network access to everyone. But the method employed by AT&T – to throttle unlimited users for “being in the top 5%” for the remainder of the month, even if their data usage doesn’t exceed the usage of the top 5% of tiered customers – that amounts to little more than a punishment of some of their most loyal users.

AT&T and Verizon claim they are providing a choice - to reduce their data usage or else suffer a slowdown in data for the "good of the whole." What they really mean is you have a choice between possibly seeing a slowdown in your unlimited data usage, or using the same amount of data without throttling by switching to one of our more profitable tiered data plans. So far this practice only applies to 3G data plans - Verizon has explicitly exempted 4G LTE users (except in extreme cases). But as 4G phones become ubiquitous, how long before we start to see similar practices placed on the owners of unlimited 4G LTE plans?

Regardless, the practice should stop – and that goes for any other carrier that may engage in the practice but not publicize it. We understand that all companies want to increase their profit margins, but punishing customers who have grandfathered data plans is not an acceptable way to go about this.