When a wireless carrier offers an unlimited data plan, it also includes language in the contract about either throttling or data de-prioritization. Many smartphone users have limited, if any, knowledge about how these work, but both are simple to understand.
The concepts in this article can apply to wireless carriers and MVNOs, satellite providers, and fixed wireless internet providers.
Throttling – Decreased Data Speeds
Throttling is the wireless carrier’s way of putting a limit on data speeds. Carriers, especially MVNOs and prepaid carriers, provide plans with throttled data speeds so that they can offer those plans at lower prices. Cricket, a prepaid carrier, is one example of this, as the carrier caps speeds on each of its plans to 8 megabytes per second. Doing so allows it to offer its plans at a lower rate than it would otherwise need to charge.
Major carriers do this, as well, although they typically offer plans with higher speeds and plans with throttled speeds to give customers the option. With AT&T, there’s the Unlimited Plus plan, which costs $90 for one line and has the carrier’s fastest 4G LTE data speeds. Customers who want to save money can opt for the carrier’s Unlimited Choice plan, which costs $60 for one line but has maximum data speeds of 3 megabytes per second.
Another time that carriers throttle data speeds is when a customer reaches his plan’s data threshold. Even most unlimited plans include a data threshold, and once a customer hits that limit, his carrier drops his data speed to 128 kilobytes per second. At that speed, all but the most basic tasks become tedious, and streaming music or videos would take hours.
Technically, these data plans do have unlimited data, as the carrier is still allowing the customer to use data without charging him an overage. But the data threshold is effectively the limit, because speeds are so slow after that threshold that it’s difficult to perform any tasks. Throttling only affects a customer until the end of that plan cycle. For example, if a customer hits his data threshold for March on March 20, the throttling will end on April 1. He can also contact his carrier to upgrade his data plan and add more data, at which point his data won’t be throttled anymore.
Data De-Prioritization – The Back of the Line
With data de-prioritization, the carrier isn’t limiting the customer’s data. Instead, the carrier has the option of pushing a heavy user’s data requests behind those of other users if there is a large amount of network traffic. It’s a way for the carrier to ensure that all its users are able to use data, and provide a high-quality experience for the majority of its customers.
De-prioritization, like throttling, kicks in when a user reaches a certain data threshold. For unlimited data plans, this threshold is usually anywhere from 22 GB to 30 GB. However, unlike data throttling which starts immediately upon reaching a data threshold and lasts until the end of the cycle, data de-prioritization only occurs when there is high network congestion. The two most common causes of network congestion are a large number of people using data in a small area, or a large number of people using data around the same time.
For example, if a user reaches his data threshold, he can expect his carrier to deprioritize him during peak data usage hours, or if he’s in an area with quite a few people also using data. Once it’s no longer a peak data usage time or when he leaves that heavily populated area, he should see an increase in data speeds.
How Throttling and Data De-Prioritization Are Different
To use a car analogy, the user’s data plan is like a car driving on a freeway with a speed limit of 70 miles per hour. The car can switch lanes to find one that has the least amount of traffic and keep going as fast as possible.
Throttling is akin to the speed limit dropping to 20 miles per hour. The car must go this speed until the speed limit goes back up, just like the user has that slower data speed until a new plan cycle starts.
Data de-prioritization would be if the speed limit remained at 70 miles per hour, but the car could only drive in one lane. Provided the lane wasn’t congested, the car could still go 70 miles per hour, but if it was congested, the car could end up going 20 miles per hour, even if traffic in the other lanes was still going 70. Until the traffic in that lane cleared, the car would be limited to that slower speed, just like the user is limited to the slower data speed until congestion clears up. Jump to top
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