On Fairness and Data Use

In a recent post, Dan Frommer argued that AT&T has now fairly resolved the controversy over throttling high-usage mobile accounts with “unlimited” plans. I think he’s wrong.

The essence of Frommer’s point is that mobile networks have a finite amount of capacity, and people who use a lot of capacity should pay more than those who don’t.

If you use a lot of data, it’s only fair for you to pay more than people who don’t. That’s how many other constrained utilities work, and that’s now how wireless broadband works. That shouldn’t be hard to understand. Especially given the sorry state of AT&T’s data network.

That’s pretty reasonable. The real problem is AT&T’s approach to the reality of their limited resources. They’re trying to have it both ways: claiming to let people keep their old unlimited plans, while sucking the meaning out of the word “unlimited.”

The honest approach would be for AT&T to concede that they’re simply unable to continue offering unlimited data, and migrate unlimited plan users to the 3GB/month plan. At present, AT&T charges $30/month for 3GB of data, the same as the unlimited plan. Data over 3GB is charged at $10/GB. The number of users who go over the 3GB cap is probably quite small. Sure, a few users might leave for another carrier, but if a small number of high-bandwidth users are such a drain on AT&T’s network, that might be a relief.

Instead, AT&T has chosen to present their plans in a way that strains credibility. They still claim to let long-time users keep an “unlimited” plan, even though their stated policy is that they limit your access, through throttling, once you exceed 3GB. By doing so, they’re missing a chance to both be fair and to educate their customers about the limits of wireless networks. It would be refreshing to hear a carrier say, “There’s only so much bandwidth to go around, and the small number of people who use a lot will need to pay for it.” Sadly, AT&T doesn’t seem to have the guts.

If AT&T’s network really can’t handle users with unlimited data plans, they should simply take those unlimited plans away. Leaving them in place while neutering the meaning of “unlimited” is just misleading customers. Water companies don’t offer “unlimited water,” while slowly reducing water pressure until the faucet is a mere trickle. It’s much simpler than that: the more water you use, the more you pay. Mobile bandwidth should be no different.

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