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AT&T’s secret f*cking loophole: If you want out of an Internet contract, just curse

By Stephen C. Webster
Thursday, March 31, 2011 9:09 EDT
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Update (below): AT&T responds, and doesn’t deny it

With telecom giant AT&T rolling out limitations and additional fees on how much information its Internet users can access, it seems the company is bracing for an influx of anger.

In a little-noticed contract tweak recently, AT&T customer service representatives have been empowered to cancel the contract of any customers who behave in an abusive manner towards them.

In other words, when those top two percent of users get massive bandwidth bills at the end of May, and they call in with full-bore nerd rage, AT&T will have an easy solution: cut them off entirely, and waive the cancellation fee.

But in perhaps an unintended consequence of this move, that would also allow disgruntled users to wriggle out of their contract with what The L.A. Times called “some strategic cussing.”

Raw Story put that to an AT&T spokesman, in the same language reflected above. While they disagreed with “the premise” of this story, they did not refute it. After AT&T promised a more detailed response, Raw Story held this report for a day, but no word had arrived at time of publication.

AT&T claims its top 2 percent of users are responsible for about 20 percent of the traffic on their network, but they add that most users don’t get anywhere near the coming-soon bandwidth cap of 150 gigabytes per month. Still, it’s unclear why their bandwidth caps are necessary if, as they say, most users are topping out at around 10-20 gigabytes.

The bandwidth cap would impose a $10 fee for every 50 gigabytes over the limit. A more expensive 250 gigabyte subscription was also in the works. Users who go over their information limit will have their first three violations will be waived, the company said.

Metering information like water

The move toward metered Internet and bandwidth as a tangible commodity has some tech businesses and Internet freedom advocates up in arms, calling AT&T’s plan a way to force other companies into a restrictive and costly business model. Some are also concerned that with Internet users watching their bandwidth meters, usage may go down and innovation could suffer.

Analysts are predicting the move could have a tremendous effect on Netflix, the most popular movie rental service online with a massive catalog of watch-anytime titles available for streaming. While it does not yet offer true 1080p video (high definition is at 720p), should Netflix finally upgrade to full fidelity video as planned, AT&T users would have to keep their viewing time to less than 90 minutes a day to avoid overage fees.

In Canada, where users have been forced into much smaller bandwidth allotments by Internet providers, Netflix even offers a option to decrease the resolution and make their videos look much worse in order to save on bandwidth.

But with most Americans watching over 153 hours of television a month according to Nielsen ratings, that leaves little time for Netflix, let alone bandwidth-intensive video games like “Call of Duty” or “World of Warcraft.”

But it’s not just entertainment: distributed computing networks, Internet professionals and tech startups of many stripes depend on unlimited access to data networks as a utility, and will all be tremendously affected once the new bandwidth-as-a-commodity business model is forced upon Internet users.

“Our new plan addresses another concern: customers strongly believe that only those who use the most bandwidth should pay more than those who don’t use as much,” an AT&T spokesman claimed earlier this month. “That’s exactly what this does – and again, 98% of our customers will not be impacted by this.”

The company imposed similar system of bandwidth caps on their wireless data services last year, doing away with the $30 unlimited package and offering instead 200 megabytes for $15 or 2 gigabytes for $25.

AT&T has also taken action against users of their smartphones who’ve broken the company’s software limitations. Savvy users with unlocked Android phones or iPhones can install software that uses their device’s data connection to feed Internet into any computer, but AT&T has its own software solution and and seeks to force its “unlimited” users into it by specifically looking for PC and Mac-like Internet traffic, which will soon trigger an automatic charge on that users’ account.

The so-called net neutrality rules that recently passed the FCC permit “throttling” (or slowing) of certain data on wireless networks, and explicitly allows the creation of tiered Internet subscription packages similar to AT&T’s.

The telecom giant said recently it was seeking to buy-out competitor T-Mobile for $39 billion. Though the deal faces steep regulatory hurdles, industry observers suspected it would be approved. The move would turn AT&T into America’s largest telecom, a position currently held by Verizon.

AT&T’s restricted Internet plans begin May 2.

Update: AT&T responds, and doesn’t deny it

AT&T spokesman Seth Bloom writes:

“[This] is about ensuring that our employees are treated with respect and not subjected to verbal abuse…and ensuring they’re able to help all of our customers. It’s also designed to be used in extreme cases and would only happen after multiple incidents and warnings.

“We’re not saying customers can’t get upset. This is about truly extreme and abusive situations.”

In other words: it’s going to take a little commitment, if you really want out of an AT&T contract without paying. Might want to send the kids out of the room for that one.

Bloom also added that AT&T is not actively “throttling” users who tether their smartphones to computers, but that the company will soon start automatically adding charges to their bills if these customers continue using their phone to surf the Internet.

Image credit: Flickr user akaalias.

Updated from an original version.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
 
 
 
 
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