Weekend Tech Scan: AT&T slams the door on unlimited data plans

This may be the canary in the coal mine: a first step in the inevitable collision between hunger for more online services and the limitations of available spectrum.

Crosscut archive image.

A new Droid, top, and an iPhone

This may be the canary in the coal mine: a first step in the inevitable collision between hunger for more online services and the limitations of available spectrum.

If you listened carefully this past week, you may have heard the horrendous sound of the smartphone dream — unlimited full-bandwidth movies, TV, and music everywhere, anytime — crashing to earth.   

On Thursday Mar. 1, AT&T Wireless announced it was changing the game on unlimited data plans for smartphone customers. Those plans aren’t ending, but subscribers to those plans used to watching Netflix movies for hours a day, 7 days a week, will see their download rate slow significantly if they exceed new limits being imposed on their data service.

According to an AT&T spokesperson, AT&T stopped selling unlimited data plans in June, 2010.  Only smartphones sold by the carrier before, not after that date was eligible for unlimited data plana.  

For subscribers who bought the original iPhones and 3GS models — AT&T being the carrier with exclusive rights to sell them for roughly 3 years — the lure was both the hottest smartphone on the planet, and unlimited full-bandwidth 3G cellular data as their inalienable right.

This week, that right was no longer operative.

AT&T has been at pains to explain its position. In an email, a company spokesman noted, “With mobile data usage continuing to skyrocket and the availability of spectrum scarce, AT&T, like other wireless companies, manages its network in the most fair way possible so that we can provide the best possible mobile broadband experience for all our customers.”

Their new plan only affects “a small minority” of unlimited plan holders; 95 percent of those remain unaffected, the spokesperson noted. 

If you’re on an AT&T 3G or 4G phone — iPhones only use 3G network speeds — your speeds will be reduced if you exceed 3 gigabytes of data in your billing cycle. If you have a 4G LTE phone with an unlimited plan, speeds will start stalling at 5 gigabytes. In either case, uninhibited speeds will start back up again at the beginning of each month.

Verizon, which also has legacy customers with unlimited plans (Verizon no longer sells phones with unlimited data service), has no plans to throttle the plans of its unlimited customers, a spokesperson confirmed. A call to Sprint went unanswered, but the company said in January that it does not throttle unlimited use, although it will take action against “egregious users,” according to The Verge.

One solution: A writer over at Smart Money recommends consumers start thinking about putting their cell phones on a diet, especially those in the 24 to 35 year-old range, where average usage snowballed 118 percent from Q3 of 2010 to 2011. “Analysts say data charges are only going to go up as more consumers pick smartphones and take advantage of all their features,” the article noted.

Suggestions for slimming down include using WiFi wherever possible, turning off your phone’s GPS connection when it’s not necessary, and not watching data-eating movies on your phone. The biggest users, the article notes, are iPhone 4GS users.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.  The real story is about two forces, one irresistible, the other unmovable, that are rapidly heading toward a collision course. The irresistible force is the public’s hunger for smartphones: by one estimate, the market will reach 1.5 billion devices sold annually by 2016. 

The immovable wall? The electromagnetic spectrum, the invisible but all-too-powerful pipeline through which all bandwidth, from gamma and X-rays to microwave and radio waves all flow. By the laws of the physical universe, there is only so much spectrum to go around. Compare it to the world’s hunger for oil, and the understanding that at some point oil will all but disappear, and you’ll have a good idea of the future of this issue.

When these two countervailing forces will collide with one other is unknown, but it is clear that our hunger for these devices — gleefully egged on by market forces prodding us to buy them — will at some point come smack up against the spectrum limitations.

CNET published a thoughtful article on these issues.  Even if you’re not a techie, but consider yourself socially aware, it may be worth your time to read.

If the idea of limiting your data usage leaves you teetering on the sulphuric edge of the apocalypse, hopefully these next tech developments will cool you down a bit.

If you’re an Apple 4GS phone user, and you drive a Mercedes Benz (or are thinking of getting one), the uber-popular Siri voice control will soon let you access your iPhone while you’re driving your Mercedes. According to Appolicious, Mercedes will integrate the Siri program into its Drive Kit Plus, which makes iPhone content viewable on in-car screens.

Drivers will be able use their iPhones via voice control instead of using their hands to operate their device. Text messaging, listening to music, and writing emails can all be done on the road, with the help of Siri. That plus driving instructions integrated into Siri could make this package even more attractive.

The article notes this is the first time that Apple has let the iPhone control non-iPhone systems; perhaps a harbinger of a future direction, or additional business opportunity, for Apple.

And finally, with the coming of spring and the return of the swallows to Capistrano, Apple has scheduled an event in San Francisco for March 7.  Most speculation is that the iPad3 will be introduced. The rumor mill has it that the new iPad will have a sharp retina screen like the iPhone, and will include a 4G LTE data phone model. Could this be the debut of the anytime/anywhere iPad?   

Then there’s this rumor: could this event be the one when an Apple TV — a real TV set, not the current set-top box — makes its debut?

Stay tuned.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors