AT&T Inc. is effectively ending unlimited data plans, saying that it will no longer let customers use more than a set amount of data per month without penalty.
Under a new policy, AT&T will slow download speeds for unlimited 3G and 4G smartphone customers who exceed three gigabytes and 4G LTE users who exceed five gigabytes of data in a given month. AT&T had previously been slowing speeds, or throttling, customers who were in the top 5% of data users in their respective market.
AT&T has been trying to manage capacity on its network in the face of heavy data consumption by Apple Inc. iPhone users and a limited supply of wireless airwaves, or spectrum. The carrier is spending billions to build out a new fourth-generation mobile-broadband network that can handle more data traffic.
A spokesman, Mark Siegel, said the new guidelines were necessary because of confusion among unlimited customers over when their download speeds would be slowed. He declined to say by how much the speeds would be decreased.
Now, AT&T says customers will get a text message when their usage approaches 3GB in one billing cycle. AT&T will slow customers’ data speeds for the rest of that billing cycle.
After that, speeds go back to normal if customers stay under the limit. But if they exceed the limit again, customers’ speeds get slowed without receiving another text-message reminder.
In 2010, AT&T was the first carrier to introduce so-called tiered pricing plans which capped customers’ data use. It allowed existing customers to keep their unlimited data plans indefinitely. About 56% of AT&T’s smartphone customers are on the tiered plans, the carrier said Wednesday.
The Dallas-based carrier in January boosted the prices of the tiered plans by as much as 33% while increasing the amount of data allowed per month.
AT&T and other carriers have been pushing Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to release more licenses for wireless airwaves to help stave off a capacity crunch as more customers download video, music and photos to their smartphones.
The data caps aren’t the only moves the Dallas-based telecommunications giant is taking to manage its network. In recent weeks, the carrier has begun sending out notices to some customers still using cellphones on its older 2G cellular network to swap out their devices for newer ones that can run on 3G networks.
“Your current, older-model 2G phone might not be able to make or receive calls and you may experience degradation of your wireless service in certain areas,” AT&T cautioned in the letter. Mr. Siegel said the carrier hoped to use some of the 2G spectrum for new technologies, though it would still offer 2G services to those who want them.
“We’re simply urging them to upgrade to a new device if they want to,” Mr. Siegel said.
Mr. Siegel said the carrier sent the notices to customers in the New York metropolitan area and may send them to other customers. He noted the program was voluntary and affected a small number of subscribers and most 2G phones would continue to work.
AT&T is offering the users one of four free phones, such as the Samsung Electronics Co. Evergreen or the LG Electronics Inc. GU295.