Despite the company’s recent success in gaining approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to complete its purchase of DirecTV, AT&T has suffered from a string of legal decisions and regulatory violations that have resulted in sizeable fines. Both the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have taken aim at the telecom firm over what they claim are illegal and unethical practices related to AT&T’s data usage policies.
The FTC’s case began last October when the commission made clear that they were going to sue AT&T for “deceptive and unfair data throttling.” In particular, the lawsuit focuses on customers who have unlimited data plans on their mobile devices. AT&T discontinued the plans years ago, but around 20% of its customers have been grandfathered in and retain the cap-free data packages. However, according to the FTC’s suit, AT&T has actually been imposing a limit on these consumers. This has been occurring in two ways. For those customers with older 3G phone models, a 90% reduction of their speeds took place as soon as they hit 3GB of data during the monthly cycle, while those with LTE phones saw a similar reduction in their speeds after hitting 5GB per month. Ultimately, the crux of the FTC’s lawsuit is that such actions are in violation of the contract signed by unlimited data plan customers. While AT&T claims that no such violation exists, they have modified the language in their contracts to state that throttling will only occur if the user is connected to an overloaded cellular relay.
Around the same time that the FTC’s case got underway, the FCC saw an increase in the number of complaints from AT&T customers who were irritated that their connection speeds had been slowed down. This led the commission to accuse the telecom provider of violating a transparency rule that was part of the Open Internet Order passed in 2010. Although the FCC has known about AT&T’s data throttling policy for the last four years, it was only recently that the number of unhappy customers prompted Chairman Tom Wheeler to level a massive $100 million fine against the mobile service provider.
AT&T is not simply accepting its fate and has vowed to fight the $100 million fine in court, claiming that customers knew full well that their data speeds would be throttled after reaching a certain quota and that no harm came to customers as a result of the slowdown. There is no doubt that AT&T is going to stand its ground for as long as it can on the issue, knowing that the judge in the FTC case may cite the FCC’s actions as a precedent. The telecommunications conglomerate has filed a grievance against the FCC stating that the current fine is excessive and that, at most, AT&T should have to pay only $16,000, even though its policies were not illegal.