NEW YORK — Mike Trang likes to use his iPhone 4 as a GPS device, helping him get around in his job. Now and then, his younger cousins get a hold of it and play some YouTube videos and games.
But in the past few weeks, there has been none of that, because AT&T put a virtual wheel clamp on his phone. Web pages wouldn't load and maps wouldn't render. Forget about YouTube videos — Trang's data speeds were reduced to dialup levels.
"It basically makes my phone useless," said Trang, an Orange County, Calif., property manager.
The reason: AT&T considers Trang to be among the top 5 percent of the heaviest cellular data users in his area. Under a new policy, AT&T has started cutting their data speeds as part of an attempt to manage data usage on its network.
So last month, AT&T "throttled" Trang's iPhone, slowing downloads by roughly 99 percent. That means a Web page that would normally take a second to load instead took almost two minutes.
AT&T has about 17 million customers with "unlimited data" plans that can be subject to throttling, representing just under half of its smartphone users. It stopped signing up new customers for those plans in 2010 and warned last year that it would start slowing speeds for people who consume the most data.
What's surprising people like Trang is how little data use it takes to reach that level — sometimes less than AT&T gives people on its "limited" plans.
Trang's iPhone was throttled just two weeks into his billing cycle, after he'd consumed 2.3 gigabytes of data. He pays $30 per month for "unlimited" data. Meanwhile, Dallas-based AT&T now sells a limited, or "tiered," plan that provides 3 gigabytes of data for the same price.
Users report that if they call the company to ask or complain about the throttling, AT&T customer support representatives suggest they switch to the limited plan.
"They're coaxing you toward the tiered plan," said Gregory Tallman of Hopatcong, N.J. He hasn't had his iPhone 4S throttled yet, but he's gotten text-messages from AT&T, warning that he's approaching the limit. This came after he had used just 1.5 gigabytes of data in that billing cycle.
AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel said that as of last summer, the top 5 percent of data users were using 2 gigabytes of data per month. But he also said the company doesn't actually throttle all of the top 5 percent "unlimited" data users. Last month, the figure was only 0.5 percent, or about 200,000 people, he said.
That's because AT&T throttles users only in areas where the wireless network is congested that month, Siegel said.
The limited data plans force subscribers to keep an eye on their usage, so they don't overwhelm AT&T's network. Verizon Wireless has adopted similar plans. But the two companies differ in how they manage their remaining "unlimited" subscribers.
Verizon doesn't slow down the "5 percent" unless the cell tower their phone is connected to is congested at that moment, and it slows them down by the minimum amount necessary. By contrast, once AT&T has decided to throttle your phone, it will be slow for the rest of the billing cycle, even if it's 3 a.m. and there are no other cell phones competing for the capacity of that particular cell tower.
Verizon's measures have drawn few complaints, and indeed, may have gone unnoticed even by the "5 percent."