AT&T’s ‘Unlimited’ Plans Get a Little More Limited

AT&T on Thursday changed the way it handles the cellular data use of its unlimited wireless data users.

Customers with unlimited data plans for 3G and non-LTE 4G smartphones will see their wireless speeds slow once they user more than 3GB of data per month. Those using an unlimited plan on a 4G LTE smartphone have a 5GB threshold before they see their speeds slow.

Previously, AT&T had told customers only that the top 5 percent of unlimited data users would be throttled. The company maintains that using approximately 3GB of cellular data per month would likely put a customer in the top 5 percent of its wireless users, but the newly spelled-out guidelines place a hard limit on the amount one may use before seeing slow speeds.

After the month’s billing cycle is up, the user will start fresh and speeds will return to normal.

Customers under the tiered plans will not be affected by the new policy. The highest tier AT&T offers is 3GB of data for $30 per month. A customer under that plan would pay for additional usage if he or she used more than 3GB in a month but would not experience slower data after crossing that threshold.

Any user nearing the threshold will receive a text message alert from AT&T.

Limited Spectrum

With smartphone use on the rise, AT&T joins other carriers in exploring new ways to limit the amount of data that consumers use. Since 2006, AT&T’s smartphone customer list has grown from 7 million to 39.4 million. During that time, it’s invested more than US$95 billion in expanding its networks, the company claims, and it plans to put another $20 billion into wireless during 2012.

Verizon, the largest wireless provider in the U.S., also throttles the top 5 percent of its users. Sprint is the only of the three largest U.S. networks to still offer a truly unlimited plan.

AT&T is urging consumers to use WiFi, which does not count toward their monthly cellular data limits, as often as possible.

“Spectrum is a very limited resource, and it’s a shared resource, and we have to find a way to manage the network so that all customers can use it and still have a great experience,” Mark Siegel, executive director of media relations at ATT Mobility, told the E-Commerce Times.

During its ultimately fruitless bid to acquire T-Mobile, the fourth-largest carrier in the U.S., AT&T frequently insisted it needed the merger for the additional spectrum T-Mobile could bring to the table.

“AT&T was the first carrier to handle the iPhone and is certainly paying the price,” Dan Olds, principal analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group, told the E-Commerce Times. “I don’t think they had any idea just how quickly this phone would take off and how voraciously consumers would be using AT&T’s network to shuttle data back and forth.”

Consumer Reaction

Despite the spectrum crunch, many consumers have become accustomed to “unlimited” access to data.

“Customers aren’t going to be very happy with this move, even though, as AT&T continually points out, this only affects a limited number of them. Of course, it’s not that they can’t get an unlimited amount of data — it’s that AT&T will, if they exceed their quota, knock their speeds down a few notches,” said Olds.

AT&T customers do have the alternative to switch to a tiered data plan that won’t hinder their speed, but will instead charge them more for extended use. Customers who find neither option attractive may decide to walk away from AT&T altogether, but from the carrier’s point of view, losing heavy users who didn’t pay as much as their peers may be a net positive.

“Consumers are definitely going to see more limits on their data usage. Usage is growing faster than capacity and technical advances that allow the firms to get more traffic through their existing capacity. Metered Internet usage is coming down the road, so customers will need to get used to it,” said Olds.

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Study Finds Best US Mobile Internet Connectivity in Northeast

Eight of the top 10 states for mobile Internet coverage are in the Northeast, according to an analysis released by a consumer product and services comparison website.

The best mobile Internet coverage, though, isn’t in a state at all but in the District of Columbia, WhistleOut revealed in its analysis.

Placing behind D.C. were Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Ohio, Maryland and North Dakota.

WhistleOut also identified the worst states for mobile Internet connectivity. That dubious distinction goes to Alaska, followed by Wyoming, Nebraska, Mississippi, Maine and Vermont.

In ranking the states, 75 percent of the score was based on median mobile download speeds and 25 percent by 5G coverage.

Economics of Connectivity

Regional variations in service are related to the economics of connectivity, explained Anshel Sag, a senior analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. A single cell tower in New York City can serve many more users than a similar tower built in a rural area.

What’s more, he told TechNewsWorld, “In rural areas, there is more need to dig infrastructure to support new cell towers and it takes more time and money to send engineers to update or deploy infrastructure.”

US Mobile Internet connection speed ranked by state

Mobile Internet connections ranked by state [Credit: WhistleOut]

Those economics mean that rural areas won’t be at the head of the line to receive the latest technology.

“Not surprisingly, wireless vendors are focusing their initial 5G efforts on urban and suburban areas that have the greatest concentration of customers and users,” Charles King, the principal analyst at Pund-IT, told TechNewsWorld. “But that means that smaller towns and rural areas can remain underserved for years, and some places effectively never get access to new service.”

Craving Connection

King added that the 3G networks that first enabled effective mobile Internet connectivity nearly 20 years ago massively changed communications and entertainment.

“For the vast majority of people and organizations, mobile connectivity represents the norm today,” he said. “Just consider what happens when mobile networks or services are disrupted.”

Just how important the mobile Internet is became apparent during the ongoing pandemic.

“People are staying connected with their family and friends, who they can’t see because of the pandemic, through the mobile Internet,” observed Sherri Riggs,the social media specialist at WhistleOut. “That connection is something we’re all craving and needing right now.”

“We’ve also seen a huge strain on broadband connections in the United States during the pandemic,” she told TechNewsWorld. “Having a mobile broadband Internet connection to back that up is something lots of people have been relying on the last few months.”

Lifestyle Changer

Sag maintained that mobile connectivity drives a lot of the economy and gives people and companies the mobility and access to information that they need to make better decisions more quickly.

“COVID-19 has exposed how important mobile Internet connectivity has become when cellular operators had to borrow fallow spectrum from players like Dish to prevent significant slowdowns to their networks due to significantly increased usage,” he said.

The mobile Internet will also be important for the lifestyle of the future, noted Atlanta-based technology analyst Jeff Kagan.

“We need to remember three things when we leave the house today — our keys, out wallet and our cell phone,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“Going forward, we’re only going to have to carry our smartphones because it will do everything,” he said. “In order for that to work, we’re going to need the mobile Internet.”

5G’s Contribution

What’s more, the mobile Internet is going to need 5G to keep technological development going forward.

“The significant boost in download speeds offered by 5G will clearly impact mobile entertainment and gaming,” King observed.

“In addition,” he continued, “5G is likely to lead to the development of ever more robust mobile applications, as well as newer or emerging solutions, including IoT and connected homes.”

“In other words,” King added, “next gen mobile solutions absolutely need 5G.”

Sag asserted that 5G connectivity will take the mobile Internet to more than just smartphones and tablets.

“While it does exist in many other places like planes, trains and automobiles, those implementations are bespoke in many scenarios and do not scale in a way that can be implemented everywhere,” he explained.

“5G enables all types of devices and services to access the Internet and become more intelligent and aware of their surroundings to maximize efficiency or improve the efficacy of the service itself,” Sag continued.

The mobile Internet powered by 5G will become faster, more reliable and available in more places, he added.

“New applications and services that were previously unthinkable or impossible with 4G will be possible with 5G,” he said, “and I believe many of those will exist in the factory, on the farm, in the classroom, in the car or even inside of a headset.”

Game of Hype

Riggs pointed out that 5G is more than just about speed. “The biggest advantage 5G offers over the other generations of the mobile Internet is capacity,” she explained.

“A single 5G tower will be able to support many more people than a 4G tower,” she continued. “The sheer capacity 5G offers consumers will greatly improve everyone’s Internet connections.”

She predicted that by the end of 2021 the majority of the country will have access to 5G from every carrier.

“Will it be 5G with gigabit download speeds?” she asked. “No. But the high-band 5G will be available in most major cities across the country.”

Before 5G’s potential to improve the mobile web is realized, though, consumers will have to put up with a lot of sizzle and not much steak.

“To put it kindly, the carriers’ claims have been optimistic and tend to paper over the fact that reliably constant 5G connectivity is fairly rare,” King observed.

Kagan noted that whether it’s 3G, 4G or 5G, the carriers are in a marketing game. “They have to win against their competitors,” he said. “A carrier can’t say that it’s not moving at lightening speeds. If it does, customers will go elsewhere.”

“They offer 5G, but it’s not available everywhere yet,” he continued. “And where they offer 5G, it’s not as fast as it’s going to be. It’s just the game. That’s the way it’s always been played in the wireless game for decades.”

John P. Mello Jr. has been an ECT News Network reportersince 2003. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, IT issues, privacy, e-commerce, social media, artificial intelligence, big data and consumer electronics. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including the Boston Business Journal, theBoston Phoenix, Megapixel.Net and GovernmentSecurity News. Email John.

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