-- The days of unlimited data transfers may be dwindling. AT&T is now testing the idea of a monthly data cap for its broadband Internet users, the company has confirmed, and could move toward a more widespread rollout in the future.
Users in Reno, Nev. will be the first to see the limits pop up, spokesman Michael Coe indicates, though a secondary test market may soon be added. Beginning this month, AT&T will restrict new customers in the affected areas based on their Internet plans. Users with the slowest speed DSL service will be limited to 20GB of bandwidth per month, while users of the fastest plan will receive a cap of 150GB a month. Any data transferred above the limit will be billed at a rate of $1 per gigabyte following a one-month grace period. Existing AT&T customers will not yet be affected but will be added into the test later this year. All existing users will automatically receive the highest cap of 150GB a month, Coe notes.
"We have previously stated that some type of usage-based model, for those customers who have abnormally high usage patterns, seems inevitable," he says.
AT&T believes the caps are more than sufficient for average users, pointing out that a small subset of its customers -- about 5 percent -- uses a full 50 percent of the network's bandwidth, slowing things down for the remaining majority.
"Customers, for example, who are uploading and downloading the equivalent of more than 40,000 YouTube videos or 40 million e-mails a month," Coe explains. "This kind of heavy usage has an impact on all of our customers."
By published estimates, the lower-end 20GB/month limit would allow you to download about four HD movies a month before hitting your cap. The higher-end 150GB/month limit, in comparison, would allow for approximately 30 HD movie downloads, while a middle-of-the-road limit such as a 60GB/month scenario would provide bandwidth for 12 such streams.
AT&T isn't the first provider to move toward bandwidth caps, but as America's largest ISP, it's certainly the one with the heaviest impact. Comcast started enforcing bandwidth limits of 250GB per month -- a slightly larger number than the maximum cap being tested by AT&T right now -- at the beginning of October. At the time, Comcast stated its average Internet customers stayed below 2GB to 3GB of bandwidth per month. Still, critics have lashed out at the idea, suggesting bandwidth needs will likely rise in the future and creep closer to the caps being put into place now.
As for AT&T, the company will provide customers with a bandwidth measuring tool so they can keep track of their usage and be aware where they stand in relation to their limits. (Other third-party measurement tools are also generally available, if you'd like to see where your usage falls.) AT&T also promises to notify users 60 days before any additional charges begin potentially appearing on their bills.