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AT&T and the word “Unlimited”

Weasel words may change the meaning of ‘unlimited’ in terms of a court’s interpretation of a contract but the categorically do not change the underlying truth that ATT chose a word they weren’t willing to have mean what it means.


This word you keep using, ‘unlimited’. I don’t think it means what you think it means.

I have an unlimited data plan option on my iPhone. I have had this contract since shortly after the release of the iPhone in June of 2007. I stayed with AT&T to keep that grandfathered plan not because I needed it. Not because Verizon isn’t a MUCH more reliable cell carrier but because if you allow yourself to get on a metered plan, you fall to the mercy of your provider. To see how this is exploited, give this a read: http://blog.jonalper.com/2010/price-of-sms/.

The thing is, with telcos both wired and wireless, we have more rights than if, for example, they were a restaurant  deciding after we’d ordered the meal that they were charging for ketchup.  With a restaurant, we don’t like the food or the prices? Tough noogies on us for that check.We pay. We leave. We don’t come back. We don’t have any right to tell a restaurant how much they can charge all we can do is choose another and hope market pressures keep prices in check.

With telcos and cable companies we really don’t have that option. We can’t just pay and walk away to a better, cheaper alternative. They have near and sometimes literal monopolies depending where you live, whether your devices are locked to their service.

What we do have is this:

If you’re old enough, recall long distance charges before the government broke up the original AT&T. Now, because of the way spectrum is allocated (wireless spectrum is owned by the people and allocated to companies to sell us back services using that spectrum) and the way Cable Companies and Telcos get access to tearing up the roads and putting up poles

They get this access in exchange for the right to make money selling us connectivity. When we grant them this access to public (public means we own them all citizens own them and we ‘hire’ government to manage them for us) facilities as a way to let them turn a profit we must also demand they find a way to profit in a manner that serves the public good.

This isn’t some hippy-lefty-tree-hugger-99% thing. This is simple logic. They get the right to exploit public resources to make money and with those rights come responsibilities. It’s our job to make sure we get both what we pay for as customers and what we, as a country pay for when we allow them that access.

Today, ATT announced:


” Info for Smartphone customers with Unlimited Data Plans

Do you have an unlimited data plan? If so, we have information to help you manage your account if you use more than 3GB, which means you are in the top 5% of data users in our network. If you have a 4G LTE Smartphone with monthly data usage over 5GB, you’ll also be interested in this information. You can check your usage for this month by dialing *data# on your mobile phone.
If you have one of our tiered data plans, this information will not affect you.
Background: In response to soaring mobile broadband usage and the limited availability of wireless spectrum, we implemented a network management program back in 2011 to help ensure the best possible mobile broadband experience for all of our customers.

If you have a smartphone that works on our 3G or 4G network and still have an unlimited data plan,
• You’ll receive a text message when your usage approaches 3GB in one billing cycle.
• Each time you use 3GB or more in a billing cycle, your data speeds will be reduced for the rest of that billing cycle and then go back to normal.
• The next time you exceed that usage level, your speeds will be reduced without another text message reminder.
If you have a 4G LTE smartphone and still have an unlimited data plan, the same process applies at 5GB of data usage, instead of 3GB.
You’ll still be able to use as much data as you want. That won’t change. Only your data throughput speed will change if you use 3GB or more in one billing cycle on a 3G or 4G smartphone or 5GB or more on a 4G LTE smartphone.”

This is actually a loosening of what they’d allegedly been silently doing before capping at 2GB but now they’re on record.

In my “informed but not a lawyer” opinion:
A lawyer would say this is not within the legal definition of a “reasonable” interpretation of the word “unlimited”.

This is what a lawyer would call ‘breach of contract’.

As a citizen and co-owner with you all, My Fellow Americans, this is not what I want my government to allow them to do with our  spectrum, our rights of way under and over  our land.

So, what I’ll be doing, and what I recommend y’all do too is the following:

– Look into what it takes to file a small claims action in your state. Might win, might lose but either way, it will cost AT&T money to defend themselves or pay because they refused to.

– Go here and file a complaint: http://esupport.fcc.gov/complaints.htm

– Contact your representative and complain to them: http://www.house.gov/

Why do you care?

Very simple. If there is no such thing as an ‘unlimited’ plan for data services, wired and wireless, then there will be no “cloud”. There will be no ‘backup to a server’. There will be no “access my data from anywhere”. There will be those who can pay the metered fees and those who can’t. The digital divide will be a chasm. The telcos will be able to skim a piece of the action off everything you do. Netflix will be Netflix’s fees plus however much your ISP charges for having been home with the flu and watched more movies than last month. It will mean if you iTunes Match and want to listen to your music you may pay a bit more for the last few plays of that great new London Calling reissue.

This isn’t some small little narrow issue. This is about the future of the connected world. There is plenty of money to be made selling unlimited connectivity. Our job as customers is to simply make it too expensive not to.

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