Are you a part of the 5 percent? No, not the 1 or the 99 percent, the 5 percent of AT&T smart phone users who consume more than 3 GB of data a month - checking email, surfing the Web, stream music, uploading photos, checking Twitter, sending texts... If you're not a member of the 5 percent, disregard everything you hear about how AT&T data caps its formerly unlimited mobile data plans.
First off, AT&T isn't data capping anything, at least not for customers who haveunlimited data plans. Instead of a data cap, which would stop you from downloading more stuff, the carrier is throttling, or slowing down the data speed once you reach 3 GB of data.
How much is 3 GB of data? I consider myself a medium user - I use my phone every other day for data - and I haven't used 2 GB over a four-month period.
According to AT&T, you'd have to check 5,000 emails, download 1,600 attachments, stream 35 hours of music, view 4,000 Web pages, download 50 apps or songs, post 700 social media updates with pictures and stream a movie to get to 3 GB of data in one month.
I'm betting that's not even close to describing your smart phone usage.
If you are downloading and uoloading that much digital flotsam and jestam - well, as Groucho once supposedly said, I like my cigar but I take it out of my mouth once in a while - AT&T will send you a text when you get close to 3 GB of data use (or 5 GB on a 4G phone), the way they do when you go over your monthly voice minutes.
How to stay below the 3G line
If you suspect you're being a cellular data hog, there are a couple of steps you can take to make sure you don't crash through the AT&T data cap ceiling.
First, use Wi-Fi whenever you can, which is another good reason to get a Wi-Fi router at home (unless you're fearful about potential adverse Wi-Fi health effects, in which case you're kind of stuck with curtailing your smart phone data proclivities).
Second, monitor your data usage.
For Android phones, AT&T offers a free AT&T Smart Wi-Fi app, which automatically connects you to a local Wi-Fi hotspot (just remember to turn your phone's Wi-Fi on first) and lets you see how many MB or GB you've drawn.
Your data usage is displayed prominently in a pie chart with your actual numerical usage in tiny text underneath. I guess the visual representation is designed to give you a quick snapshot of your usage.
On iPhones, you don't need a separate app. Go to Settings - General - Usage, then scroll all the way to the bottom to tap on Cellular Usage. If you can remember, reset the data-ometer when your current billing cycle ends. Add the Sent and Received numbers to get your total data usage (no, I don't know why it separates the two). iPhone will tell you the last time you reset the counters.
AT&T, along with T-Mobile and Verizon, are all slamming the brakes of its most active users for a good reason: cell spectrum is a limited resource.
Think of cellular spectrum as a highway. As more cars start driving on it, everyone is forced to slow down. At some point, you get bumper-to-bumper traffic, and no one goes anywhere. By throttling its more copious users, AT&T and the other carriers are trying to keep as many lanes clear as they can for everyone else.
Since the introduction of the iPhone, AT&T says cellular data usage - traffic - has ballooned 20,000 percent - you read that right, 20,000 percent. It's been a vicious circle; every time networks get faster - from 2.5G to 3G to 4G - it becomes easier and faster to connect and download and stream. And the faster it is to connect and download and stream, the more we do it. And the more we do it, the more stuff companies put up to connect to download and stream.
It's the ultimate "if you build it, they will come."
Why doesn't Sprint impose a data cap? It bought a lot more spectrum - it has a much wider highway - than AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon. But even Sprint's spectrum has a limit - and its success in drawing customers drawn by the promise of unlimited spectrum could crowd it sooner than anticipated. Just to be clear, however, there is as yet no hint that Sprint is suffering any spectrum shortage at the moment.
In the meantime, don't worry about AT&T's data cap throttling unless you suddenly find yourself using your smart phone 24/7.