AT&T’s Wireless Data Traffic Doubles Every Year, But Throttling Is Not The Solution

AT&T Senior Executive VP John Donovan took to the company’s Innovation Space blog to talk wireless data, and the statistics he brings to the table are nothing if not impressive. Among other tidbits, Donovan revealed that the carrier’s wireless data traffic has at least doubled every year since 2007.

“Over the past five years, AT&T’s wireless data traffic has grown 20,000%,” he said.

He pegs this “wireless data tsunami” on the growing popularity of smartphones, and AT&T’s recent numbers back him up. The nation’s second largest wireless carrier picked up a total of 8.9 million new subscribers in 2011, and broke their own quarterly records by selling 9.4 million smartphones during the year’s fourth quarter. But with wireless data use on the uptick, AT&T is going to have to get creative when it comes to managing their data networks.

Donovan notes that AT&T has poured over $95 billion into their wireless and wireline infrastructures over the past five years, and that 2011 saw an investment of “$20 billion in our networks, and… more than 150,000 wireless network improvements.” AT&T has also apparently earmarked another $20 billion for network upgrades and improvements during 2012. So far though, AT&T’s tactics to ease their network burden have left some long-time users seeing red.

Way back in the day you see, AT&T (like rivals Verizon and Sprint) offered a $30 unlimited data plan to accompany their smartphones, and more than a few customers (myself included) have chosen to cling to those plans for as long as humanly possible.

So far, AT&T hasn’t forced anyone to give up those plans outright. Instead, they seem bent on making those unlimited plans unpalatable to the people who still have them. To wit: AT&T announced in October of last year that they would take efforts to throttle data speeds for unlimited customers who exhibit an “extraordinary level of data usage” within a billing period.

Fan though I am of my unlimited data plan, I was onboard with this — people who blatantly take advantage of their grandfathered plans to the detriment of other users deserve to have their speeds axed. They can still use as much data as they please, just at a much slower pace. At the time, AT&T claimed that only the top 5% of all unlimited data plan holders would be affected. Alright, fine. I don’t go crazy with my data plan, so I shouldn’t have to worry.

Here’s the thing though: you may not have to go crazy with your data plan before AT&T takes notice. There’s no shortage of reports from people who have been hit with dramatically reduced data speeds after using a relatively low amount of the carrier’s bandwidth in a given month. Our own MG Siegler has an email from a customer being throttled after using roughly 2 GB of data in a month, which is crazy considering AT&T was pushing their 2 GB data plan at the time. But it gets worse.

BGR has received an email from a customer who was contacted by AT&T for using 1.6 GB of bandwidth in a month, and the Huffington Post relates the customer who was warned after using only 1.5 GB. Meanwhile, AT&T has since reconfigured their data plans to offer 3GB of data for $30. What they’re telling us, in essence, is that the era of unlimited is over. Pay the same price for a limited plan and we’ll leave you alone, or stick with your grandfathered plan and see what happens.

Of course, AT&T stands by the plan: a spokesperson told the New York Times’ Bits Blog that whether or not a user will be throttled depends not only on how much data one has consumed, but also on the network conditions where that user is. “There’s a very good chance you wouldn’t be slowed,” the spokesperson notes.

That sounds great — there’s a very good chance that you’ll get what you expected when you signed up for this plan. But the fact that unlimited users have to be concerned with this at all is a pretty clear signal that AT&T wants to be rid of those unlimited plans like a bad habit.

Look, AT&T, I get it. It takes a lot of work to accomodate this many customers, and the demise of the T-Mobile deal probably didn’t help. But you’re only breeding ill will among the people who have stuck with the company for years. You’re already trailing behind Verizon and Sprint (Sprint!) when it comes to customer satisfaction, and this throttling crusade won’t help matters. Take that $20 billion you have set aside for network improvements this year and make it count so you can get back to taking care of your customers.