AT&T Working Hard to Defend Its Worst Carrier Rep?

In the past month or so, AT&T has begun encouraging some 2G phone users to upgrade (and get locked into a new contract). The company is penalizing heavy data users who are grandfathered onto its unlimited data plan. And recent data plan changes mean that if you switch from one plan to another even temporarily, your old, cheaper plan won’t be waiting for you when you try to return.

It appears AT&T isn’t looking to improve its dead-last position in the 2011 Consumer Reports reader survey of wireless carriers. Here’s a quick look at what the recent, consumer-unfriendly moves the carrier has made:

* 2G or not 2G. In the past few weeks, AT&T has started sending notices to some customers in the New York metro area who still use its older 2G network. The message: It’s time to upgrade to devices that can run on the carrier’s 3G (or faster) network.

"Your current, older-model 2G phone might not be able to make or receive calls and you may experience degradation of your wireless service in certain areas," AT&T’s letter states, as reported by The Wall Street Journal.

Why the letter? AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel told WSJ that the carrier “hoped to use some of the 2G spectrum for new technologies,” such as the 4G LTE service it’s rolling out. AT&T and other carriers desperately need additional wireless spectrum to accommodate their customers’ increasing downloads of data-heavy content, such as video and streaming music.

To compensate, AT&T is offering 2G users inexpensive upgrades of $10 to $20 to certain phones—which require signing a new contract.

* Unlimited data has its limits. In 2010, AT&T discontinued its $30 monthly unlimited data plan due to the squeeze that users of the iPhone and other smartphones were putting on its network. Customers currently subscribing to the unlimited data plan could keep it indefinitely, if they chose. However, in the past month, AT&T had begun ‘throttling’ the speeds of users who go over 3GB of data in any given month on 3G devices and 5GB of data for 4G device users. The decreased speeds will remain in place until the user’s next billing cycle begins.

"Because spectrum is limited and data usage continues to soar, we manage our network this way to be as fair as possible and so we can provide the best possible mobile broadband experience to everyone," AT&T said in a statement. The company said that if heavy data users don’t want their speeds throttled, they could switch to a tiered data plan, such as its 3GB of data per month for $30.

* You’d better not switch unless you mean it. In late January, AT&T revised its tiered smartphone data plans. Previously, your options were $15 a month for 200GB; $25 monthly for 2GB; or $45 monthly for 4GB and the ability to turn your iPhone into a personal hotspot. Currently, AT&T’s tiered plans are $20 monthly for 300GB; $30 for 3GB; or $50 for 5GB and the personal hotspot option.

Are you subscribing to the $15 monthly plan and only occasionally need to switch to a higher plan for the tethering option when you travel? If so, be aware that if you switch your plan, the $15 monthly plan won’t be available to you any longer. You’ve just ‘grandfathered’ yourself out of the least expensive plan.

In all fairness, it’s hugely expensive to build, maintain, and upgrade cellular networks. And with more people using smartphones today, carriers like AT&T must contend with ever-growing demands on their networks. There’s no easy solution to balancing the carrier’s needs—to stay competitive and profitable--with their customers’ needs. But from the looks of it, AT&T is paying more attention to the former and not enough to the latter.


iPhone, data plans, AT&T