It was a case of an average American working stiff versus a huge faceless corporation when 39 year-old truck driver Matthew Spaccarelli from Simi Valley, CA, recently took AT&T to court, winning a small claims dispute with the telecommunications giant over the contentious issue of network throttling. Spaccarelli’s claim was that AT&T was unlawfully throttling the data connection of unlimited users, slowing down his own data service after he had surpassed 2GB of data usage in a single billing cycle.
Although having lost the case (for $850), AT&T isn’t done with this precedent setting issue yet, apparently offering Spaccarelli a settlement, one riddled with confidentiality agreements and the sort of passive aggressive bravado one’s sees from large companies like AT&T on a regular basis.
But where do the rest of us stand on this issue? Is Spaccarelli a hero, fighting against a network throttling issue that effects us all, or is he simply now the face of a relatively small minority of data gluttons, those whose data usage habits, when left unchecked, slow down the network for the rest of us?
Briefly, Spaccarelli was able to effectively argue that AT&T purposely throttled his data speeds on his iPhone, despite the fact that he paid for an unlimited data plan. He demonstrated that his service was slowed after he had used between 1.5GB and 2GB of data per single billing cycle.
Following the case, AT&T reportedly sent Spaccarelli a strongly worded letter, threatening to terminate his service if he didn’t sit down with the company to discuss his usage habits. AT&T notes that Spaccarelli admitted that he has, in the past, tethered his iPad to his iPhone, a violation of AT&T’s user agreement and grounds for contract termination.
While it may sound like big business intimidation practices, the company claims that it is simply participating in a dialogue that Mr. Spaccarelli himself initiated when he contacted AT&T after the judge awarded him $850 in damages. For his part, Spaccarelli claims he initiated no such discussion, phoning AT&T only to find out how he could collect the money owed to him.
As I’ve said before, even as a strong proponent of Net Neutrality standards, I’m torn over such network throttling. On the one hand, AT&T offered customers like Spaccarelli an unlimited data plan for a flat monthly rate, and further allowed those same customers to retain the unlimited data plan when it was phased out last summer. From one perspective, customers like Spaccarelli are simply getting their money’s worth from a contract they signed with AT&T in good faith.
On the other hand, however, Spaccarelli and his fellow data gluttons don’t operate in a vacuum, as AT&T claims that the top 5 percent of data users consume on average twelve times the network resources of the average subscriber, a trend that AT&T has found slows down network speeds for everyone. The problem, of course, is that all subscribers, those average and those heavy data users alike, all pay fees under the assumption that they are getting access to the same speedy (yet always problematic) AT&T network.
In the end, from a customer perspective, this throttling seems like a good idea, as only the heaviest data gluttons like Spaccarelli will be penalized, leaving the rest of the subscribers to enjoy, ideally, a better wireless network.