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AT&T data traffic doubling as users complain about throttling

The carrier is claiming that its data traffic has doubled each year since 2007, but its inconsistent throttling policy isn't likely to draw much sympathy from customers.

AT&T is trying to help customers understand why its data network is overtaxed but its throttling policy isn't winning them over.

The carrier's data traffic has doubled each year since 2007, according to John Donovan, a senior executive VP for AT&T technology and network operations. Over the past five years, data traffic has grown by 20,000 percent.

And who's the main culprit? The smartphone, of course. The iPhone likely factors into that equation quite heavily since it debuted in 2007.

"The growth is now driven primarily by smartphones," Donovan said in a blog post yesterday. "Add to that new customer additions and the continuing trend of upgrades from feature phones to smartphones, and you have a wireless data tsunami."

The use of the term "doubled" may be open to interpretation, according to The Wall Street Journal, since AT&T recently said that it was seeing 40 percent growth in data on average each year.

A company spokeswoman explained to the Journal that the 40 percent growth counts only existing smartphone customers, but the 100 percent growth includes new users as well as those who upgrade or add new devices.

However you count it, AT&T's network continues to be overtaxed by data.

In response, Donovan revealed how the company is coughing up plenty of money to improve its service. Over the past five years, AT&T has spent more than $95 billion on both its wireless and wireline networks.

Last year, the carrier invested $20 billion in its networks, claiming more than 150,000 improvements to its wireless network alone. And this year, it expects to spend another $20 billion as it focuses on 4G LTE deployments, the distribution of antenna systems, and the addition of more Wi-Fi hot spots around the country.

I think most people can understand AT&T's dilemma. The company needs to keep spending money to beef up its network as the demand for data increases. But it also needs to find ways to keep that data under control. And that brings us to the throttling policy.

AT&T recently made good on its promise to start throttling heavy data users. The company first broke the news in July that it would need to slow down the network connections of such users starting October 1, 2011. The policy affects only subscribers who still have an unlimited data plan.

But as implemented, the policy is vague and inconsistent. Offending users are told that "Your data usage is among the top 5 percent of users. Data speeds for the rest of your current bill cycle may be reduced."

So it's not necessarily your own personal data usage that determines your guilt or innocence. It's how much data you gulped up in comparison with your fellow users and people in your location. TechCrunch, Boy Genius Report, and other blogging sites have related tales of angry users who consumed anywhere from 1.5GB to 2GB of data during a billing period and still received the stern warning from AT&T.

The irony is that the company offers a $30-per-month plan that guarantees 3GB of data. As TechCrunch notes, the throttling policy seems to be the carrier's way of pushing customers away from its unlimited plan toward the tiered plans, which start at $20 a month for 300MB and go up to $50 a month for 5GB of data.

AT&T clearly wants its smartphone users to appreciate the ramifications of a network overloaded with data. But at the same time, pushing a throttling policy that's unpredictable and imprecise at best isn't the way to curry favor with your customers.

Correction 10:52 a.m. PT: This story initially misidentified the publication that questioned AT&T about the use of the term "doubled." It was The Wall Street Journal.