AT&T to restrict cell phone data use

The days of unlimited iPhone and Blackberry data use are coming to an end, as AT&T says it’s looking to crack down on bandwidth hogs.

AT&T Consumer Markets chief executive Ralph de la Vega was cryptic about how the carrier will restrict heavy data users, but told investors at a UBS conference in New York that some sort of usage-based pricing is on the way, the AP reports. He noted that three percent of smartphone users take up 40 percent of network capacity, mostly because of streaming audio and video. There may be incentives for bandwidth hogs to limit their data, but de la Vega gave no sense of whether those incentives are actually savings or fewer additional charges.

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Like Time Warner Cable, which earlier this year tried testing bandwidth limits for wired Internet — and faced a backlash — De La Vega spoke of educating the customer. “We’ve got to get them to understand what represents a megabyte of data,” de la Vega said. “We’re improving all our systems to let consumers get real-time information on their data usage.” In other words, get ready to check your account periodically to monitor data use, much like you would with minutes in a limited voice plan.

If AT&T limits bandwidth use for so-called unlimited data plans, it’ll surely cause more bad blood between the company and its subscribers. A recent Consumer Reports customer satisfaction survey placed AT&T last among the four major carriers for both network quality and customer service. Attempts to salvage network quality at the expense of users’ freedom to use their phones as advertised will not go over well.

What’s worse is that bandwidth caps may not address AT&T’s network woes. When a network bottlenecks, it’s because a lot of users are performing bandwidth-intensive activities at the same time, not because they’ve been using a lot of data over an entire month. You could argue that restrictions would make some people more conscious of their activities, but if that’s the case, you’re effectively discouraging certain uses of the phone, and that’s not good.