FTC sues AT&T over unlimited data throttling

The Federal Trade Commission is suing AT&T Mobility over data throttling on unlimited data plans. The Commission alleges that AT&T's practices regarding unlimited data were deceptive and unfair. The FTC believes that AT&T in some cases reduced unlimited data speeds after certain amounts by up to 90 percent.

The FTC's guiding principle is "unlimited means unlimited". This means that if a carrier offers you unlimited data, they shouldn't be able to throttle you if you exceed a certain amount of usage. The Commission points to AT&T's marketing materials, which heavily emphasize unlimited data.

It is alleged that AT&T began throttling data back in 2011, reducing speeds for customers after they had used 2GB of data in a billing period. The FTC also says that 3.5 million unique customers have been affected by AT&T's practices. AT&T, according to the complaint, received thousands of complaints from customers regarding slow data speeds, with some considering the throttling of unlimited plans a "bait and switch".

Do you think the FTC's case has merit? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Update: AT&T has reached out to us with a statement responding to the FCC's claims:

"The FTC's allegations are baseless and have nothing to do with the substance of our network management program. It's baffling as to why the FTC would choose to take this action against a company that, like all major wireless providers, manages its network resources to provide the best possible service to all customers, and does it in a way that is fully transparent and consistent with the law and our contracts."We have been completely transparent with customers since the very beginning. We informed all unlimited data-plan customers via bill notices and a national press release that resulted in nearly 2,000 news stories, well before the program was implemented. In addition, this program has affected only about 3% of our customers, and before any customer is affected, they are also notified by text message." -- Wayne Watts, Senior Executive Vice President and General Counsel, AT&T

Source: FTC

Joseph Keller is the former Editor in Chief of iMore. An Apple user for almost 20 years, he spends his time learning the ins and outs of iOS and macOS, always finding ways of getting the most out of his iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Mac.

  • It's about damn time!
  • The lawsuit definitely has merit. It's totally bait-and-switch. This is very good news.
  • So glad this has finally happened!! It ridiculous where you can't even open a page!!
  • About time, I had to switch off the unlimited plan because it was useless once you hit the cap
  • ExactlY what they wanted you to do.
  • I know but I needed it to work. And I tacked on my iPad so it is a few bucks less the end so I can justify it to myself
  • Can FTC move to Canada and sue Rogers, Telus and Bell too? Please?!!
  • Hell yes! I was one of the "thousands" of customers who called in to complain. I was told that I was hitting the cell towers "too hard," but if I switched to one of their tiered plans it wouldn't be a problem. Like I've said time and time again, they will have to pry unlimited data from my cold, dead hands haha!
  • You can say that again. Unlimited for life, screw those gouging tiered data plans.
  • Way to go FTC! Have to applaud the government when they do good for its citizens. I hope AT&T folds just like Verizon.
  • Best news I heard today!
  • This happened to me every single month. I would go from 11-12mbps in one location all the way down to
    .12mbps if I went over 3 GB in a month. It was almost unusable. That's why I switched carriers and have been happy ever since Sent from the iMore App
  • I hope something happens. This happens to me every month. It amazes me how someone with unlimited data is throttled at 5 gb and tell me they do it to manage the network then turn around and offer me a 30 gb plan that is metered and isn't throttled. The plan cost more so I guess it truly is all about the money. They also don't let us use our phone as a "hot spot". I ask... who is more likely to bring the network down? The guy with the $375 (phone/text/data) / month 100 gb plan or the guy with the $65 ($30 phone / $5 text / $30 unlm data) plan that is throttled at 5 gb. When I say throttled we are talking .5 mb/s for download and upload speeds. That to me is the real speed of AT&T's fake unlimited plan.
  • Great. I just switched last month to a tiered plan because I was hitting the cap often enough to cause problems--not every month mind you, but when it happened it seriously hampered my business productivity. AT&T also discouraged maintenance of the unlimited plan in other ways, like disabling wifi hotspot and tethering, and denying the per line discount available on the mobile share plans even if you bought your phone outright for full retail price or brought your own device. "Unlimited" is not the word I would use to describe that plan. For what it's worth, the promotion they have right now doubling the data for plans of 15GB and up (so you'd get 30GB for the price of 15GB) is actually cheaper over 24 months than the unlimited data plan if you've got 2 iPhones and an iPad, assuming you used Next or paid-in-full for the phone rather than taking advantage of the two-year contract/subsidy pricing model. Mainly because the per line cost goes from $40 down to $15. I was only using about 4-7GB per month with all devices, so 30GB ought to be more than enough...for now anyway.
  • About time! That's why I left AT&T when I bought my iPhone 6 plus. I hope they are found guilty!
  • You betcha. Let's watch AT&T take one in the foot for the industry as a whole. Never understood why they just didn't get rid of the unlimited plan if they didn't want people using it instead of this grandfathering stupidity; such bad PR in the end.
  • Using an iPhone 6+ today with the maps app ... one map took over five minutes to load ... and that's before asking it to figure a route ... took screen shots of several maps breaking to pieces ... have had ATT unlimited since our first iPhone ... have noticed slow downs since about 2010 or 2011 ... at first it was just a little slow but now it's plan ridiculous... the iPhone 6+ is up to 9+ gig of data for this bill period but that includes the original setup of a new phone ... have tried turning cell service off when there is wifi but but it became too much of a pain ...
  • An addition: just started download of Mac Break weekly & it's showing over an hour for 46mb
  • They should be sued and should have to refund the monthly data plan charges of every single unlimited plan customer that has been throttled. I, like many commenting, begrudgingly gave up my unlimited plan for one of the tiered plans. I did so for two reasons 1. I was being throttled midway through the month nearly every month and the speeds were TERRIBLE. I was lucky if I got > .40 Mbps. The part that pissed me off the worst is that while I was over their imposed "cap" my wife, who had an unlimited plan too but was on a family plan with me, was well under it. In essence we should have got 10 GB per month together regardless of which one used it. 2. They were offering a family plan of 30 GB/month for a couple dollars less than I was paying per month for our "unlimited" plans. In the end they are actually getting $52.50 less per month from me. How do? In addition to my "unlimited" plan I was paying $50/month for 5 GB of data on my iPad. I cancelled my iPad plan. Now that I can use my iPhone as a hotspot I just tether my iPad to my iPhone and used part of the 30 GB family plan I have. So in the end AT&T just gave me a $50/month discount and is actually giving me more data. Way to think it through morons (AT&T). Based on their past promises broken I don't expect this to last more than a year or 2. Hopefully by then T-Mobile will have expanded their coverage more in my area (great in the populated areas, crappy in the country and on the lake). At that time I will just switch to a T-Mobile. Long story short, AT&T sucks and I hope they get what they deserve (massive penalties). Sent from the iMore App
  • Also, AT&T can complain all they want and they may actually win against the government in the end. But the thing that will never go away is the bad PR. They should have just told all unlimited plan holders that they had to get rid of their unlimited plans whenever they signed new contracts. Instead they got greedy and didn't want to lose subscribers and in the end will actually probably lose more. They need to stop this nonsense that only 3% of subscribers use > 5 GB/month. That is complete crap. > 5 GB/month is becoming the norm as file sizes get bigger and as more and more people use their smart phones and tablets as PC replacements. Sent from the iMore App
  • 350 dollars month 4 unlimited one 2mb plan this a whole lot of money for what?
  • Unlimited means unlimited, not 2GBs. Sent from the iMore App
  • They are all crooked! Sent from the iMore App
  • It's about time. I have unlimited data and to me unlimited means unlimited. I called ATT to ask why they throttled me, and they say they throttle because if they didn't it takes away from other customers. My response was well maybe ATT should just expand its network. The unlimited data is very deceptive and ATT should not be allowed to throttle us after 5GB that's not unlimited data and it's just not good business. Sent from the iMore App
  • Yes, the FTC's case has merit. Sent from the iMore App
  • This would be great if you still have unlimited especially now that you can use your iPhone as a hotspot. I wish I still had that plan. I could cancel comcast.