Mach ado was made about AT&T’s move to throttle the top 5% of unlimited data users on its network. These users were grandfathered into unlimited data plans, a service AT&T no longer provides its customers. Some of these customers are up in arms, claiming Ma Bell was in violation of the terms of their original contract. To make matters worse, most customers facing throttling from AT&T are using only 1.5 – 2GB of data, well below the 3GB AT&T currently offers to new customers. It is estimated that about 17 million customers are still on grandfathered unlimited data plans on AT&T’s network, nearly half of all of its smartphone users.
Though AT&T forbids these users from gathering together their claims into a class action lawsuit, it cannot prevent these customers from taking them to small claims court. Unemployed student and former truck driver Matt Spaccarelli did just that, and today was awarded $850 by Judge Russell Nadal of the Ventura Superior Court in Simi Valley. Spaccarelli saw his data rates throttled on his iPhone after just 1.5-2 GB of data usage in a month.
The practice of throttling heavy data users is common practice on the other US GSM carrier, T-Mobile USA, though the practice of throttling was built into contracts up front, not added on later like AT&T. Verizon Wireless also slows down its top data users, though only if the cell tower they’re connected to is currently congested. Throttling generally brings a user’s data speeds to below the standards of even 2G data connections, with speeds barely above the dial-up speeds of yesteryear. Though data certainly still works when throttled, the experience renders a smartphone largely useless unless connected to WiFi.
AT&T claims that it retains the right to modify or cancel customers’ contracts if the data usage adversely affects its network, though that argument is a bit hard to justify when its threshold for throttling is at least 1 GB below the 3 GB data plan it currently offers its customers. Clearly, its network can handle the extra traffic, otherwise it wouldn’t be able to offer a 3GB tier to new customers, a tier it increased by a full GB just this year.
A ruling in Mr. Spaccarelli’s favor opens the door for more small-claims lawsuits against AT&T. Customers who have faced data throttling will be able to fight back against AT&T and receive compensation for the adversity they’ve faced. It’s possible we’ll see thousands or even hundreds of thousands of these cases pop up over the next several months.