Sprint will slow down heaviest users of unlimited data

Sprint will slow down the connection speed of its heaviest data users.
Lynn La/CNET

All good things must come to an end. For customers on Sprint’s unlimited plan, the days of free-flowing data are over.

Starting Friday, the nation’s fourth largest wireless operator will begin “throttling” or slowing down the connection speed for its heaviest unlimited-data customers. But you would really need to work to get in Sprint’s sights. Customers won’t see a slowdown until they hit 23 gigabytes in a month, or enough data to stream all five seasons of “Game of Thrones.” The average user consumes about 3GB of data a month.

Sprint’s policy change comes as the carrier, which over the summer slipped to the No. 4 position, struggles to improve its service amid tough competition from rivals ATT, Verizon and T-Mobile. It’s the latest roadblock thrown at unlimited data users from Sprint, which raised the price of its unlimited plan by $10 earlier this month, and another sign of the increasing cost of delivering that data.

The company said that excessive unlimited users ruin the experience for those around them. “This practice is intended to protect against a small minority of unlimited customers who use high volumes of data and unreasonably take-up network resources during times when the network is constrained,” said John Saw, Sprint’s chief technology officer.

Sprint had previously attempted to throttle heavy users, going after the top 5 percent of its subscribers each month. But it suspended the policy in June.

ATT and Verizon abandoned their unlimited data plans years ago, complaining they were economically unviable as consumers started to use more data. They allowed customers with “grandfathered” unlimited data to keep their plans. T-Mobile and Sprint continued to offer unlimited data plans to all customers in an effort to attract customers from their two bigger rivals.

Unlimited data is a double-edged sword for the carriers. While it attracts new customers, many of them tend to be the heaviest data users.

T-Mobile, which also throttles customers after 23GB of data, has called out those users, with CEO John Legere publishing an angry blog post slamming excessive usage.

Regulators, however, have recently begun scrutinizing the practice. In June, the Federal Communications Commission threatened to fine ATT $100 million for deceiving its customers by mislabeling its unlimited service. The FCC also challenged Verizon when it planned to expand its data throttling policy to its 4G customers. The company retracted that policy, and in June also stopped slowing unlimited data traffic for 3G customers.

Sprint defended its new policy. “That’s a lot of data,” Saw said. “And it’s far more than most customers ever use in a typical billing cycle.”

Sprint said customers will still be able to use unlimited amounts of data without overage charges, but for moments when the network is congested, traffic from heavy data customers will move more slowly. Sprint said that the policy operates in real-time and only applies if a cell site is constrained. Performance for an affected customer returns to normal as soon as the local traffic returns to normal.

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