MONEY Tech

How AT&T and Verizon’s Loss is Your Gain

A customer walks into a Verizon Wireless retail store in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014.
Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Get ready for better promotions, lower prices, and more choices.

Change is afoot, and it’s been a long time coming. After T-Mobile T-MOBILE US INC TMUS 3.2271% officially kicked off its Un-Carrier campaign in early 2013, the domestic wireless industry was bound to change. CEO John Legere has spearheaded the company’s Un-Carrier strategy, launching a number of aggressive pricing plans and other offers. T-Mobile has since followed up with a string of other new promotions and initiatives, tempting potential switchers to take the plunge.

Meanwhile, Sprint SPRINT NEXTEL CORP. S 2.7708% has been struggling, and the No. 3 carrier is counting on its new leadership to turn the tide. Now, the two top dogs, AT&T AT&T INC. T 2.5712% and Verizon VERIZON COMMUNICATIONS INC. VZ 1.3135% , are starting to feel some competitive pressure as they lose their duopolistic grip on the U.S. wireless industry — and just this week, both companies tempered investor expectations for the current quarter.

Verizon sticks to the high-end

Verizon kicked things off with a news release on Monday that indicated demand for 4G smartphones remains “very strong,” and the carrier continues to see momentum in this department. On top of that, Big Red saw 75% of smartphone upgrades qualify as high quality.

Then came the bad news. Verizon is spending heavily on promotional offers, which is helping drive volumes this quarter. These promotional expenses are expected to pressure its wireless segment EBITDA and will put a dent in profitability. At the same time, the No. 1 carrier also acknowledged that retail postpaid disconnects are on the rise due to intense competition and promotions from rivals. Translation: Verizon is spending big on promotions but continues to lose customers.

AT&T is also feeling the burn of churn

Just a day later, AT&T CFO John Stephens spoke at an investing conference, similarly indicating that the company expects postpaid churn to increase in the fourth quarter. Though Ma Bell will close out 2014 with “one of [its] best years ever” in terms of full-year postpaid churn, this could be the beginning of a troubling trend.

Stephens explained this is the first year that the new Apple iPhones were launched simultaneously on all four carriers, and because AT&T has the largest install base of iPhone users, it similarly faces higher competition targeting iPhone users. However, this is actually incorrect, as the iPhone 5s launched on all four carriers in 2013.

The CFO also dodged a question about whether or not 2015 will see full-year postpaid churn levels rise compared to 2014 — competition is only going to continue escalating.

Can you hear me now?

None of this is to suggest that AT&T or Verizon are seeing a mass exodus of subscribers that will cripple their respective businesses — far from it. Rather, small cracks are starting to appear in the armor of the top two players. Both companies continue to have the largest subscriber bases in the U.S. and have been relatively resilient to pricing pressures, in part because of public perceptions around rivals’ networks.

Carrier Total Retail Subscribers (MRQ)
Verizon 106.2 million
AT&T 86.3 million
Sprint 45.9 million
T-Mobile 42.0 million

Source: SEC filings. MRQ = most recent quarter. Figures do not include wholesale connections or connected devices.

That’s especially true for T-Mobile, which has long suffered from these negative connotations. But T-Mobile has made impressive progress modernizing its 4G LTE network during the past 12 to 18 months. I personally switched from AT&T to T-Mobile recently and saw my cellular data speeds soar by five times in my area (Denver).

T-Mobile is absolutely catching up in terms of network quality and, over time, it will dispel the perception that its network is inferior — the primary goal of its current Test Drive offer. Once that is achieved, price will be the determining factor, and T-Mobile has shown its willingness to go straight for the jugular when it comes to pricing.

Sprint’s fortunes are a little less clear. The carrier stagnated under Dan Hesse and paid dearly for technological missteps including its original choice of WiMAX over LTE. Meanwhile, the company’s heavy debt load — even after the SoftBank capital infusion — limits its ability to invest heavily in network infrastructure upgrades that are extremely capital intensive.

To be fair, Verizon also has a massive debt load after buying out Vodafone’s stake in Verizon Wireless, but the company’s network is already quite mature, so its capital needs are less intense.

You’re the real winner of competition

Competition is only going to pick up in the coming years. T-Mobile has made it quite clear that it has no intention of letting up anytime soon, and it will continue to push against its larger rivals. The Un-Carrier even believes it can overtake Sprint in total customers by year’s end.

The net result of all of this is that you, the consumer, will benefit in the form of better promotions, lower prices, and more choices.

 

MONEY bills

The AT&T Bill That Just Wouldn’t Die

AT&T store with pedestrians rushing on sidewalk below
Richard Drew—AP

A Chicago woman got more than she bargained for when she tried to change her phone-and-Internet service.

When you have a dispute over a bill with a company, sometimes it’s not enough to respond to a collections notice with evidence that the bill has been paid. Sadly, even if the collections firm appears to drop the matter it can still come up again, and again, and again. This is the tale of the bill that just wouldn’t die.

It’s often harder than it should be to close an account. A small remaining balance, sometimes invisible to consumers, can create a big hassle, leading to collections calls and damaged credit – even bills that are several years old for as little as $50 or $100 can really punish a credit score. That’s bad enough.

It’s hard to understand how simply changing service – rather than canceling service – could lead to that kind of red tape nightmare. But that’s exactly what happened to Cathy Nestor, who lives north of Chicago, when she dropped AT&T’s U-verse TV, phone and Internet bundle three years ago and went with only U-verse Internet service.

The trouble started with a $70-something balance remaining on her old bundled account with AT&T’s U-verse, which Nestor claims she paid back in 2011.

Since then, three different firms have tried to collect on the bill, and Nestor says she provided evidence it was paid each time. Still, by the time she wrote to me, she was on the verge of getting reported as delinquent to the credit bureaus.

AT&T, for its part, disagrees with Nestor’s version of events. The company says the old account was never settled (for reasons we’ll explain shortly) and claims her evidence is faulty. Nestor says that the various collection firms never successfully communicated that to her, or didn’t push back when she told them the bill was paid.

The Confusion Begins

When Nestor dropped her U-verse bundle in 2011 but kept high-speed Internet, AT&T gave her a new account and new account number. She says she paid her new bill, thinking it would include any leftover balance from her old U-verse account. It didn’t. But soon after, she realized the error and says she separately paid the old account bill balance of $72 on Nov. 23, 2011. As evidence, she provided me a copy of an electronic payment from her bank statement. (And we should note that she is currently considered an in-good-standing customer of AT&T’s Internet service — that is, on the new account.)

Then the fun began.

She says she got a letter requesting that the bill on the old account be paid. She says she wrote back with evidence that it had been paid, claiming AT&T must have lost the payment amid the account number confusion. About 18 months later, she got a letter from another collection agent demanding that the bill be paid. Again, she wrote with evidence of payment. Then in January 2013 (“Yes, this has been going on that long!”), she received a letter from yet another collections company, Afni Inc., based in Bloomington, Ill., demanding a $79 payment.

“This account has been placed with our agency for collections,” read the letter. “We are requesting your assistance in resolving this matter. We may report information about your account to credit bureaus.”

“I WILL NOT BE PAYING THIS COLLECTION ITEM,” she wrote to Afni, in all caps. (Nestor provided a copy of the exchange for my review). “AT&T has already been paid, and they have tried to sell this off once before. I have already proven to them they were paid. I do not know why they keep trying to collect this.” She concluded by threatening legal action.

Then, nothing. No acknowledgment of receipt. No, “We’re sorry, we’ll drop it,” notice. No new attempt to collect. Silence. It was tempting to think the matter was closed, but Nestor knows consumers should never assume any such thing.

“Just waiting for it to show up again, you know,” she wrote when she contacted me to complain about the repeated collections.

Unraveling the Mystery

I reached out to Afni, and the firm shed a little light on the situation. AT&T had not sold the debt, but was using Afni as a third-party firm to attempt collection.

“When Afni had this account, AT&T was the owner of it—we did not purchase it,” said Debra Ciskey, director of compliance at Afni. “This account was recalled from Afni by AT&T on Aug. 5, 2013, so we are no longer handling it on behalf of AT&T.”

When I asked Ciskey what “recalled” meant, she said Afni was simply instructed to stop attempting to collect on the debt on behalf of AT&T.

“I am sorry that I am unable to tell you what would have happened to the account after we returned it to AT&T,” she wrote.

Ciskey’s responses suggested Nestor’s fear her bill would become zombie debt was well-founded.

“Terrific. I’m guessing that means I still haven’t seen the end of this,” Nestor said, sarcastically. She was right.

Next, I contacted AT&T, and the firm said that Nestor did indeed still owe the money. Emily J. Edmonds, director of AT&T Corporate Communications, acknowledged the payment Nestor made in November 2011, but said it was applied only to her new Internet service account rather than her old bundled account. That left a $79 balance (Nestor and AT&T also disagree on the old account balance).

“This customer has had an outstanding balance on her former account since 2011 that was never paid, ultimately resulting in the bill being sent to collections,” Edmonds said in a statement. “Once we were notified that the customer claimed to be wrongly charged, we conducted a thorough account review and determined the outstanding balance was indeed still owed.”

She also said Nestor had only contacted AT&T directly once during the three-year dispute to complain.

There’s no way to know who’s right about the payment, unless of course Nestor provided proof that the $70-something check was applied to the old account or AT&T provided proof that it was applied to the new account (which should have led to an account surplus, or reduced bill, if logic serves). But we do know for sure that when the third and final collections firm tried to collect, she wrote back with evidence the disputed amount – or something close to it – was paid, and then Nestor heard nothing more.

Edmonds said she could not explain why Afni didn’t respond to Nestor’s letter with further evidence that the debt was owed, and referred that question to Afni.

Afni says a collector is not required to respond to a consumer disputing a debt if it simply ceases collection. “A response is required only if the agency is going to continue collection attempts,” Ciskey said.

And that is one reason some bills never die; it’s also how consumers come to be reported to credit bureaus as late. While Afni could not pursue the debt any further without continuing the dialog by “validating” the debt, that doesn’t stop AT&T from contracting a different collector, or selling the debt.

Margot Saunders, a debt collection law expert at the National Consumer Law Center, said that’s true. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act requires any firm collecting a debt on behalf of a third party to “verify” the debt if a consumer objects to a collection notice – but only if the firm continues to attempt to collect. Second or third collections firms get to start the process over, and are currently not required by law to keep track of prior collection attempts by others.

Moving Forward

AT&T is now working directly with Nestor to resolve the dispute, so at least for now, she appears to have a happy ending. There is a lesson in her tale, however. She is an example of a concept I call the “exception bin.” Computers and databases are great at handling 99% of transactions. When things follow standard patterns, computers hum along and take care of everything. But once there’s something even a little unique about your situation, you land in the exception bin. And because corporations rely on computers so much, many run into trouble when dealing with items that land in the exception bin. Often, it can feel impossible to get out of it – even if you send letter upon letter providing evidence.

In Nestor’s case, it’s perfectly sensible that she thought she could just keep paying the bills AT&T sent her for U-verse and her account would be current. If you think like a computer, however, you can see how the firm’s computers might handle customers who downgrade from bundled service to a single service. Then, once her bill was handed over to collections, she became an exception that just wouldn’t die. Yes, AT&T used three different firms during a three-year stretch in an attempt to collect a $70-something debt from someone who otherwise seems to be a good customer. And yes, the firm could have seriously harmed her credit over a small bill that she thought she’d paid, that she provided evidence she’d paid, and for which she’d received no response (until the next collection attempt).

So what’s the lesson? In broad strokes, do whatever you can do to avoid the exception bin. Of course, that’s not always possible. Moves happen. Mid-contract cancellations happen. Early service upgrades or downgrades happen. And mistakes happen on both sides. But when they do, realize that your odds of getting caught in corporate red tape go up astronomically. In that case, you must be hyper-vigilant for signs that your exception will soon lead to headaches. Be proactive: Pay a bill, then call to make sure the payment is applied. When you cancel a service, get a letter confirming cancellation and a bill showing a $0 balance. Furthermore, check your credit scores and credit reports regularly for signs of trouble, and dispute any errors as soon as possible. You can get your credit reports for free once a year from each of the major credit reporting agencies, and you can get two credit scores for free from Credit.com along with an explanation of what they mean.

It may seem tedious, perhaps even unfair, but it’s a reality of navigating your way in the 21st Century.

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

MONEY Phones

Sprint cuts rates in half to win AT&T, Verizon customers

The offer is the latest attempt by the third-largest carrier to compete with its larger rivals.

Sprint’s latest plan to compete with its two larger rivals? Woo AT&T and Verizon customers by offering to cut their phone bills in half if they switch to Sprint.

The Overland Park, Kansas company announced that deal on Tuesday, promising “unlimited talk and text” and a matched data allowance at half the rate of what current Verizon and AT&T customers are currently paying for their monthly plans. Billing it as “The Cut Your Bill in Half Event,” Sprint also promised to pay up to $350 toward customers’ early termination fees or installment bill balances in an offer that will officially launch on Friday.

Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure called it “the best value in wireless” in the company’s announcement. “It’s as simple as this: Bring Sprint your Verizon or AT&T bill along with your phone and we’ll cut your rate plan in half. That’s a 50 percent savings on your rate plan every month. And this great deal is not just a promotion. This will be the customer’s ongoing price,” Claure said in a statement.

The limited-time offer is a sign that Sprint, the nation’s third-largest mobile carrier, now sees price competition as the best way to battle AT&T and Verizon. Earlier this year, Sprint and its parent company — Japan’s SoftBank — backed off a $32 billion planto purchase smaller carrier T-Mobile US after the two sides failed to reach a deal that could have created a larger mobile company better suited to take on AT&T and Verizon.

Interestingly, Sprint’s new rate offer does not extend to T-Mobile customers.

TIME technology

AT&T Won’t Be Bringing Wi-Fi to Your Next Flight After All

New York City Exteriors And Landmarks
A view of the exterior of the AT&T store in Times Sqaure on February 21, 2013 in New York City. Ben Hider—Getty Images

Hopes for an ATT LTE-based airborne network are officially grounded

AT&T has nixed an ambitious plan to roll out wireless Internet on board commercial flights, choosing instead to refocus its investments on international markets and video services, the carrier said Monday.

The move comes as AT&T is in the process of buying Mexican operator Iusacell for $1.7 billion and satellite broadcasting service DirecTV for $48.5 billion. Those deals are subject to Mexican and American regulators, respectively.

“After a thorough review of our investment portfolio, the company decided to no longer pursue entry into the in-flight connectivity industry,” an AT&T spokesman said in a statement to Reuters.

AT&T unveiled its plan to offer 4G LTE-based connections in April, putting it in direct competition with existing in-flight service provider Gogo Inc. Shares on Gogo Inc. climbed 10% on news of AT&T’s decision to bow out of the market.

[Reuters]

MONEY

Why Sprint Is in Trouble

Sprint store
Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg via Getty Images

The nation's third-largest carrier is losing customers left and right.

Let’s be honest, most wireless carriers aren’t adored by their customers. But if we look at some of the data on Sprint SPRINT NEXTEL CORP. S 2.7708% it appears the company has the most unhappy customers in the wireless industry. Based on the rate at which customers leave the company and two independent surveys, the nation’s third-largest carrier is struggling to please its customers.

Churn rates don’t lie

Let’s start with the wireless industry’s plum line for how well a carrier holds on to its customers — churn rate. Churn is the percentage of customers that leave a carrier for another network. In Sprint’s most recent quarter the company had a postpaid churn rate of 2.18% — the highest of all major US carriers.

In the company’s fiscal Q2 2014 earnings release this week, Sprint said it lost 272,000 postpaid subscribers in the quarter. Net tablet additions hid some of the worst news that a whopping 500,000 phone subscribers left in the three month period. That’s terrible news for Sprint and its investors.

By comparison Verizon had a churn rate of 1.00%, AT&T’s AT&T INC. T 2.5712% was 0.99% and T-Mobile’s T-MOBILE US INC TMUS 3.2271% was 1.6% in each of their most recent quarters.

Of course there are a few factors that play into churn rates other than a customer being dissatisfied with a carrier, but on the whole the lower the churn rate the better the indicator customers are happy with their current wireless provider.

But let’s assume for a minute that Sprint has a higher churn rate than its competitors for some reason other than customer dissatisfaction. Well, then we could look to other sources for whether or not Sprint’s customers are truly unhappy.

The list no company wants to be on

A recent survey commissioned Zogby Analytics for 24/7 Wall Street showed that Sprint topped a list for one of the worst customer service companies. More than one in five survey respondents said Sprint’s service was “poor.”

This comes as Sprint was fined $7.5 million by the FCC earlier this year for violating “do-not-call” requests by its customers. To be fair, Sprint’s not the only one. AT&T is paying $105 million to settle FTC charges that it added unauthorized charges onto its customers’ phone bills.

But even before this survey came out, Sprint’s been known for its lackluster reputation among the public.

An ongoing problem

Last year Consumer Reports published a survey showing that Sprint was in dead last place among cell phone carriers, according to the publications’ readers. While the Consumer Reports took into account factors like voice calls and data, the most telling indicators came from Sprint’s customer support.

For “ease and speed of getting through phone system to appropriate support staff” Sprint received Consumer Reports’ worse-than-average rating, as did the company’s rating for how well customer issues were resolved. The highest rating Sprint got was “average” for how knowledgeable the company’s staff was. Not exactly a stellar report card.

This is isn’t helping things either

According to data from RootMetrics, in the first six months of this year Sprint had the worst performing network of all the major wireless carriers.

Source: RootMetrics

Sprint trailed the pack in network speed, call performance, and data performance, while barely beating T-Mobile for reliability and text performance.

Fortunately, Sprint’s in the process of updating its old 3G network with 4G LTE and is bringing its ultrafast tri-band Spark network to more cities. On top of that, Sprint just replaced its former CEO with billionaire Marcelo Claure, the founder of the wireless distribution services company, Brightstar. With a new network and a new leader, RootMetrics thinks Sprint’s last place finish could be short-lived.

While Sprint’s clearly making changes to reverse its place among competitors, the company needs to focus on its industry high churn rate. Competition among wireless carriers is stronger than ever, and with T-Mobile’s aggressive offers and superior network, there are some clear benefits for Sprint customers to switch to the “uncarrier” network.

I think Sprint has a long road ahead of it in changing its place in the wireless industry. The company could stand to take a few pages of out T-Mobile’s branding book. Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure reportedly asked his vice presidents “Why would anybody want to buy a Sprint phone?” after he took over the job — and they had no answer. If that’s the case, it’s no wonder why Sprint customers are likely asking themselves the same thing.

TIME Research

Why People Text And Drive Even When They Know It’s Dangerous

texting while driving
Getty Images

75% of drivers surveyed admit to texting while driving

If you’ve turned on the TV or glanced up at a billboard lately, you know that texting while driving is a bad idea. Celebrities are lending their names to public awareness campaigns, and more than 40 states have banned the practice. A new study surveyed 1,000 drivers and found that 98% of those who text everyday and drive frequently say the practice is dangerous. Still, nearly 75% say they do it anyway.

“There’s a huge discrepancy between attitude and behavior,” says David Greenfield, a University of Connecticut Medical School professor who led the study. “There’s that schism between what we believe and then what we do.”

The lure of text messages is actually a lot like the appeal of slot machines, Greenfield explains: both can be difficult compulsions to overcome for some people. The buzz of an incoming text message causes the release of dopamine in the brain, which generates excitement, Greenfield says. If the message turns out to be from someone appealing, even more dopamine is released.

Curbing this compulsion could take years for the text-obsessed, and doing so might resemble efforts to stop drunk driving, Greenfield says. People need to realize they’re part of the problem before they change their behavior, he adds.

“In order to really include oneself in a group that has a problem with texting and driving, they have to admit their own fallibility, and we’re loath to do that,” Greenfield said.

Multiple public awareness campaigns have taken to the airwaves and internet to target the practice, but it’s unclear how effective they are, given that the public seems to be largely aware of the issue. There might be more actionable solutions in the very near future, however. AT&T, which sponsored Greenfield’s study as part of its “It Can Wait Campaign,” has an app that switches on when a person is driving more than 15 mph and silences incoming text message alerts.

Read next: Why Siri Is the Worst Backseat Driver

MONEY privacy

Verizon and AT&T Snooping on Customers’ Web Activity

Verizon Wireless store
Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg via Getty Images

AT&T and Verizon are tracking their customers' web habits using undeletable "supercookies."

Verizon and AT&T are tracking the online activity of over 100 million mobile customers, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and multiple news outlets.

Both services are inserting a special code—dubbed a “supercookie”—into their networks’ cellular web traffic. This code is then used to track the browsing habits of customers; in Verizon’s case, it is also used to help marketing companies send mobile users targeted ads.

The Washington Post reports that Verizon has been tracking its 106 million retail customers (those without business or government contracts) since 2012. AT&T is testing a similar tracking system for advertising purposes. Customers can check if their web activity is being tracked using tools such as AmIBeingTracked.com.

Companies like Google and Facebook have long used cookies, numerical identifiers that travel with users between sites, to track their customers’ activity and send relevant advertising. But the extent of Verizon and AT&T’s snooping appears unprecedented. Unlike normal cookies, the so-called supercookies cannot be deleted by clearing browser data, and because the markers are added by the carrier at the network level, customers are tracked no matter which sites they visit.

Worse, privacy advocates say, the networks’ supercookies are shared with all unencrypted websites the user visits, making it possible for websites to piggyback on Verizon’s perma-cookie and reassign their own tracking mechanisms, effectively making normal cookies stronger.

Verizon says it is allowing users to opt out of the program (using this link) and that it has taken steps to notify customers of the tracking. But according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, opting out of the program doesn’t actually disable the supercookie, it just means Verizon won’t share its tracking information with advertisers. That means third-party websites can still use the company’s unremovable cookie for their own tracking purposes.

A Verizon spokeswoman noted that the company changes its cookie’s identifier frequently to prevent exactly this type of piggybacking, but she declined to say how often the cookie changes (AT&T revalues its cookie once per day). EFF points out that ad networks can use their own less-powerful cookies to connect Verizon’s old and new identifiers together.

The carriers’ tracking methods are also worrying because they ignore browsers’ Do Not Track setting, which is meant to give users an easy way to opt out of surveillance. Critics contend they may even be against the law. The Post cites potential violation of the federal Wiretap Act, which “prohibits altering personal communications during transmission without consent or a court order.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is also considering suing the carriers for violating the Communications Act, which says carriers cannot reveal identifying information about their customers.

MONEY cellphones

Hey AT&T Customers: It May Be Time to Give Up Your Unlimited Data Plan

woman walking past AT&T store
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

AT&T and other wireless carriers may continue to offer unlimited data plans, but they're not the great deal they once were.

Almost half of all AT&T mobile customers are still clinging desperately to a grandfathered cellphone plan with unlimited data, according to a survey from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP). But that choice is looking particularly unfortunate in light of the Federal Trade Commission’s latest lawsuit.

In a complaint filed Tuesday, the federal agency alleges that AT&T has been slowing data speeds for consumers on “unlimited” plans, in some cases by up to 95%. The practice of reducing data speeds for heavy users, called “throttling,” can make it very difficult to complete routine tasks like browsing the web or using GPS navigation. In some dense metro areas like New York and San Francisco, AT&T allegedly throttled users who consumed as little as 2 GB a month. Altogether, the New York Times estimates, about 25% of AT&T’s unlimited data plan customers were affected.

“AT&T promised its customers ‘unlimited’ data, and in many instances, it has failed to deliver on that promise,” FTC chairwoman Edith Ramirez says in a statement. “The issue here is simple: ‘unlimited’ means unlimited.”

AT&T calls the charges “baseless” and says it warned customers that heavy users could be throttled. But while AT&T’s alleged behavior is particularly egregious, the carrier wouldn’t be the only one to limit data use on so-called “unlimited” plans, as Ars Technica has reported.

For example, Sprint’s My Way plan promises unlimited data for the life of the line of service, but read the fine print: The carrier also throttles the top 5% of its users, as part of its “network management” strategy. Sprint says that users who consume more than 5 GB are generally at risk for throttling, though it varies by month.

Likewise, while T-Mobile has repeatedly said it does not throttle its unlimited customers, its fine print notes that the top 3% of users might see their data slowed “during times and in places of network congestion.”

Similarly, Verizon throttles the top 5% of customers still on 3G. Verizon had planned to slow speeds for the heaviest users on 4G, but it shelved that idea after receiving its own stern warning from the FTC. Maybe Verizon has less to worry about—according to CIRP, it has already moved the vast majority of its customers off unlimited plans.

In fact, Verizon hasn’t sold a single new unlimited cellphone plan in two years. AT&T hasn’t offered an unlimited plan in four years. The two biggest American carriers have been trying to wean customers off of unlimited data plans for a while now, or else the wireless companies risk becoming victims of their own success.

First Unlimited Calls, Then Unlimited Data

The unlimited model was born in the late 1990s, when AT&T launched its first One Rate phone plan, explains Kirk Parsons, senior director of telecom services at J.D. Power. Customers loved the certainty: the same bill, every month, with no separate charges for roaming or long distance calls.

That model still made sense when the phone carrier introduced data plans for smartphone users—so much sense that by 2008, AT&T actually forced all iPhone 3G customers to buy an unlimited data plan. Back then, it was a moneymaker: You could offer unlimited data because people wouldn’t use a lot of it, and it didn’t cost a lot anyways. That’s all changed.

“When smartphones started coming out, the networks weren’t up to snuff,” Parsons says. “You couldn’t actually enjoy the experience of videos and downloads. Once 3G coverage widened, then we transitioned from 3G to 4G, that’s when you really saw people using data on their phones, streaming music, watching shows.”

Now, the carriers have created a nation of data addicts. As of December 2013, Americans consumed 269.1 billion MB of cellphone data a month—far more than double what they consumed a year before. It’s just too expensive to keep up with our insatiable demand. The carriers have to buy or lease radio frequencies all around the country to provide good service, says Logan Abbott, president of Wirefly.com. There’s only so much bandwidth.

“Consider it like a nationwide wifi network,” Abbott says. “If you have everyone in your house on one wifi connection—downloading, streaming Netflix, doing data-intensive stuff—your bandwidth is going to get used up … It’s going to put drag on your network.”

Of course, if AT&T acted as the FTC claims, consumers got a really raw deal. While the other carriers say they throttle just a small fraction of the heaviest users for network management reasons, AT&T is accused of slowing service for 3.5 million of its 14 million subscribers.

Still, limited data is the way of the future. Not that AT&T customers want to hear it—there’s a reason 44% of them haven’t changed cellphone plans in over four years. “It doesn’t necessarily make sense, but they like the security blanket of never being overcharged,” Abbott says. “They have a vintage product, and they don’t want to let go.”

Paying for More Data Than You Actually Use

The truth is, if you’re an AT&T user, it might be time to give up your unlimited plan. The first thing to do is check your account to see how much data you really use—it may not be as much as you think.

Slate has prepared some handy interactive charts that show how much data you’d have to use before an unlimited plan pays off, but this is the main takeaway: If you’re only using 1 or 2 GB of data—like most typical users—you’re likely overpaying for the unlimited option. You simply don’t need that much.

If, on the other hand, you’re using a lot more, the FTC says you’re being throttled—in which case, you might as well shell out a little more money for a data plan that actually delivers the speeds advertised.

Related:

Read next: This Is the Best Wireless Carrier for You

TIME Regulation

Feds Sue AT&T for Allegedly Slowing Unlimited Data Plans

AT&T Asks U.S. Judge to Throw Out Sprint's Antitrust Lawsuit
The AT&T Inc. logo is displayed at the company's new store in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., on Friday, Sept. 30, 2011. Bloomberg/Getty Images

"The issue here is simple: 'unlimited' means unlimited."

The Federal Trade Commission is suing AT&T for allegedly misleading customers by slowing data speeds for wireless customers who had unlimited data plans but went over a certain usage point, the agency announced Tuesday.

According to the FTC, AT&T did not properly inform customers who had unlimited plans that their speeds would still be lowered after they exceeded certain data thresholds in a given month. Speeds were reduced by as much as 90 percent in some cases, making basic phone functions such as web browsing and watching video almost impossible, the FTC said.

“AT&T promised its customers ‘unlimited’ data, and in many instances, it has failed to deliver on that promise,” FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said in a statement. “The issue here is simple: ‘unlimited’ means unlimited.”

AT&T throttled speeds for 3.5 million customers at least 25 million times, the FTC alleges, while it also said that customers who canceled their contracts due to the lowered speeds still had to pay expensive termination fees, the FTC alleges.

In an emailed statement, AT&T senior executive vice president and general counsel Wayne Watts called the FTC’s suit “baffling.”

“The FTC’s allegations are baseless and have nothing to do with the substance of our network management program,” Watts said. “We have been completely transparent with customers since the very beginning. We informed all unlimited data-plan customers via bill notices and a national press release that resulted in nearly 2,000 news stories, well before the program was implemented. In addition, this program has affected only about 3% of our customers, and before any customer is affected, they are also notified by text message.”

AT&T no longer sells unlimited data plans to new customers and has been trying to phase out the service for years, along with many other major carriers. The company announced in 2011 that it would begin throttling the data speeds of its heaviest users on a regular basis.

Wireless carriers’ practice of slowing speeds for their heaviest unlimited users has also caught the attention of the Federal Communications Commission. “Wireless customers across the country are complaining that their supposedly ‘unlimited’ data plans are not truly unlimited, because they are being throttled and they have not received appropriate notice,” said an FCC spokesperson Tuesday. “We continue to work on this important issue, including with our partners at the FTC, and we encourage customers to contact the FCC if they are being throttled by AT&T or other cellular providers.”

TIME Regulation

More Than 350,000 Customers Have Asked AT&T for a Refund After Bogus Charges

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A general view of the exterior of the AT&T store in Times Sqaure on February 21, 2013 in New York City. Ben Hider—Getty Images

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Hundreds of thousands of AT&T customers have requested refunds for bogus cell phone charges since the telco reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission last week to reimburse consumers, an FTC official told TIME Wednesday. In total, 359,000 individuals have sent in claims to the FTC seeking refunds for unauthorized charges that appeared on their cell phone bills in a practice known as “cramming.” Through cramming, third parties are able to issue unwanted, recurring charges for things like love tips and horoscopes to cell phone users.

Jessica Rich, the director of the FTC’s bureau of consumer protection, said the response from consumers was one of the largest the agency has ever seen. The only case with a larger number of claims that she could recall was a 2012 settlement with Skechers over deceptive marketing for one of its shoe lines, which garnered close to half a million consumer complaints. “We expect this to be a lot higher,” Rich said.

In total, AT&T has agreed to pay $80 million in refunds to customers for cramming charges. The telco giant will also pay $20 million in penalties and fees to the 50 states and Washington, D.C., and a $5 million penalty to the FTC. At the time of the settlement, an AT&T spokesman noted that the company was the first in the telco industry to stop charging customers for premium SMS messages in late 2013. The FTC is currently suing T-Mobile over the same issue.

It’s not guaranteed that all the people who have issued claims will actually receive refunds. An independent claims administrator will review the refund requests to determine if they are valid. “I’m expecting that most of the claims are going to be valid, but if they’re not valid, there will be a way to determine that,” Rich said.

Customers who think they were a victim of cramming can file to claim a refund until May 1, 2015.

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