Earlier this week, I got a check in the mail. Normally, that’s a pretty joyous occasion, because hey, money. Except this check was a little different: It was a settlement check from AT&T.
My $12.09 check arrived as a result of a class-action lawsuit filed way back in 2014. AT&T ‘fessed up to throttling customers’ mobile data if they exceeded 2GB a month, even for those who had the old-school, fully “unlimited” data plan like I did. Once I realized why AT&T had cut me a check, I started to chuckle. That $12.09 might buy me movie ticket (and that’s not including popcorn), but it actually represents thousands of dollars in lost revenue for AT&T.
Let’s go back to where it all began: The only reason I had an AT&T phone plan at all was because when I got my first smartphone—an iPhone 3G—iPhones were still AT&T exclusives. My parents and I ditched our previous carrier to sign up for one of the original unlimited data plans that AT&T forced upon you if you wanted an iPhone.
I kept that plan for nearly a decade, even after I moved on from my iPhone 3G to a hand-me-down iPhone 4 before switching to an HTC One M7—a whole lot of phones followed, but the plan stayed the same. I even paid AT&T $20 a month or so to suspend my service while I lived overseas for more than a year, just so I could keep my phone number. AT&T discontinued the unlimited data plan and kept raising the price for those of us grandfathered in, but I still didn’t switch. I was pretty much the definition of a loyal customer.
Don’t get me wrong: The main reason I stayed wasn’t due to some naive notion that a multi-billion dollar company gave a damn about who I was. The truth is that switching carriers is a pain in the ass, and AT&T simply hadn’t pissed me off enough to make going down to store, waiting around, and enduring all the other hassles involved with switching carriers worth my time. No normal person really has an emotional attachment to their phone carrier; they just want to pay for a service that works and to be left alone. It usually takes a lot of aggravation before people get fed up enough to take their business somewhere else.
The other thing that kept me hanging around? My unlimited data plan was truly unlimited—or at least it was supposed to be. The original unlimited data plan was an errant albatross of a service package that was quickly discontinued once carriers realized they could use limits and soft data caps to make way more money.
One thing that’s sort of funny (or depressing) about all this is with the arrival of 5G, the issue of data caps is in question again: What good are mobile data speeds in excess of 1 gbps per second if your data cap is so low that you end up blowing through your monthly allotment in less than an hour?
I decided to switch from AT&T to another carrier—not just due to the throttling, but also because of AT&T’s refusal to add things like support for mobile hotspot functionality to my old grandfathered unlimited plan. Other, similarly priced plans from AT&T at the time had way more features, and it felt like I was being pressured to give up my grandfathered unlimited plan because AT&T no longer wanted to support that package. I decided that if I was going to switch plans to one that offered tethering and other modern amenities, I might as well ditch AT&T entirely.
In 2017, I canceled my plan and walked over to another carrier, signed up for a new line, and bought a new phone to boot. I’ve been forking over $65-$85 a month to another company ever since. Over the last few years, that monthly bill has quickly added up thousands of dollars in lost revenue for AT&T—and that’s just my addition to their bottom line.
What really boggles my mind is that someone deep inside AT&T thought the company would be better off screwing with people’s data plans instead of simply throwing them a bone. Instead, longtime customers were eventually forced to choose between the devil they knew (AT&T) or brave the cutthroat world of today’s carrier wars.
I don’t know how many of AT&T’s grandfathered unlimited plans are still out there in the wild, but that’s all in the past now. I’m with a different carrier, and I got my check for dealing with AT&T’s shenanigans. So who has some good ideas on how to spend my $12.09?