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Are you in AT&T's top 5 percent of heaviest data users?

AT&T's new policy to slow down heavy data users has some wireless subscribers squawking. Ask Maggie offers advice on what to do. She also chimes in on the ever-popular question: tablet or laptop?

Did you get a notice recently from AT&T stating you use more than your fair share of wireless data? Ask Maggie explains why this is happening and offers some advice to help you keep the data flowing. Ask Maggie also offers some advice on deciding between an iPad and a MacBook.

Throttled by AT&T

Dear Maggie,
I have an unlimited data plan on AT&T. I've been with AT&T for a few years. But just recently I received an e-mail from AT&T saying that I'm in the top 5 percent of heavy data users. And if I go over the 5 percent usage they're going to make my Internet slow every time I go over this limit until the new billing cycle starts again. I don't think that's fair since I am paying for unlimited data. What can I do? Please, HELP!!!!!!


Dear Mark,
You aren't the only AT&T customer to be surprised by the company's new unlimited data policy. I've received several questions about this.

Unfortunately, there isn't much you can do to fight AT&T on this. AT&T warned in July that it would throttle speeds for heavy data users starting October 1. The policy is designed to curb usage of people still on AT&T's unlimited data plan. As you probably know, AT&T eliminated the unlimited data plan as an option in the summer of 2010. But it allowed existing smartphone customers to keep their unlimited data plans if they made no changes to their plan.

CNET/Marguerite Reardon

But what AT&T soon discovered is that lots and lots of people held onto their unlimited data plans. And the company claims that heavy users, such as yourself, are using an inordinate amount of data.

The new policy only applies to unlimited data plan users. People who pay for the capped service can go over their limit, but they're charged for going over it.

The problem with AT&T's policy is that it hasn't made it clear how much data is too much. It simply states in its e-mails, text messages, and letters to consumers that they are in the top 5 percent of data users. AT&T explains that customers in this category use up to 12 times more data than the average customer.

I reached out to AT&T for more clarity on this policy and to get a sense of what the actual limit is in terms of data usage. And here is the response I got from AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel:

"As we note in the letter (to subscribers in the top 5 percent), the amount of data usage of our top 5 percent of heaviest users varies from month to month, based on the usage of others and the ever increasing demand for mobile broadband services."

I find this policy somewhat frustrating since the usage cap is not only unknown, but it's essentially a moving target, since it's based on a percentage that can change from month to month. I think this makes it hard for subscribers who have been pegged "heavy users" to figure out what level of usage is acceptable.

AT&T has said it needs to limit users who use too much wireless bandwidth to keep the network functioning properly. Since AT&T introduced the Apple iPhone on its network, it's seen data traffic increase rapidly. And the increase in traffic has hurt the performance of its network in certain places, like densely populated cities.

AT&T has also said that it needs more wireless spectrum to add capacity to its network. And that's why it tried to buy T-Mobile USA for $39 billion. Unfortunately for AT&T, regulators put the kibosh on that plan. And AT&T is once again on the look-out for more spectrum.

So what does this mean for you and other AT&T wireless customers? Well, it means that AT&T is likely to get more strict about wireless usage and it will do all it can to get customers to migrate to its capped service, where the company can command more revenue for more usage.

The switch to paying for what you use is taking hold throughout the wireless industry. Verizon Wireless also now offers new customers tiered data services. Existing customers can still keep their unlimited data plans. So far, Verizon hasn't announced plans to slow down these users if they consume too much data.

T-Mobile also employs a throttled approach. If subscribers use more than their allotted data the company slows service. The difference between T-Mobile's plan and AT&T's service is that T-Mobile's supposed unlimited plan clearly states that it begins throttling after 2GB.

Sprint Nextel is the only carrier that still offers unlimited data with no caps or throttles. The company, which recently got the Apple iPhone, says that it will continue to offer the unlimited data plan. In some ways, it needs to if it wants to remain competitive with AT&T and Verizon Wireless. But I suspect that eventually even Sprint will abandon its unlimited plan.

So what can you do? As I've stated before, there's nothing you can really do to fight AT&T and to continue using as much data as you like unfettered. All wireless companies in the fine print of their service contracts have included language that allows them to limit data usage.

That said, there are steps you can take to reduce your usage, so that you aren't in the 5 percent every month. The first thing is that you need to figure out how much data you're actually using. There are several apps that you can download onto your smartphone to see how much data you use over a period of time. I have mentioned these in previous Ask Maggie columns.

Once you know how much data you're using, you can start to reduce the amount of data you're consuming to stay under this 5 percent limit. But before you start deleting apps and games from your phone, you may be able to reduce your data consumption without having to limit the use of apps or Web surfing.

The first thing you should do is get an app that not only tracks your usage, but also compresses data downloads. I use one called Onavo on my iPhone. The company claims users can save up to 80 percent of your data usage per month by using this app. I have been using the app since July and I've reduced my data usage by at least 50 percent.

The other thing you can do is seek and use Wi-Fi more often. When you're at home or in your office, if it has Wi-Fi, use that network to stream Pandora, watch videos from YouTube, or do whatever else it is that you're doing that's eating up your data plan each month.

When you're out and about, look for free Wi-Fi hot spots. AT&T offers free access to its mobile hot spots throughout the country. You can find these in Starbucks coffee shops and other locations, as well as hot zones in places like Times Square in New York City and near Wrigley Field in Chicago. Remember that when you use Wi-Fi you are not gobbling up your carrier data plan.

And if you still find that you're exceeding this mysterious AT&T limit that puts you in the 5 percent of top data users, consider ditching AT&T and switching to Sprint Nextel while it still offers unlimited data.

I hope this helps!

iPad or MacBook?

Dear Maggie,
I am hoping you can help me with a question. I currently have an iPhone 4 and I am wondering if an iPad is really necessary. My iPhone is really a great device, I mean I only use my laptop at work but not at home anymore. And then I only use my laptop for personal stuff when I want to see a bigger image. And I do like having a bigger screen. So what I am wondering is if I should buy an Apple laptop of if I should get an iPad tablet.

After all, isn't an iPhone almost the same thing as an iPad, except for the size?

Thanks and hope to hear from you.

Best regards,
Cristian, a CNET fan

Dear Cristian,
This is becoming an age old question: tablet or laptop? In all truthfulness neither an iPad nor a MacBook are really "necessary." You've got an iPhone and you have a laptop from work, so what else do you really need?

Apple iPad 2

That said, I think what you're really asking is whether it's worth it to buy the iPad instead of buying yourself a new laptop that you can keep at home. And honestly, it depends on what you plan to use the device to do.

A laptop will offer more functionality, power, and storage than a tablet. It will also be a bit more flexible given that you can add a slew of attachments via USB to the MacBook. So if you are looking for something to store your photos and music on or a device with a full keyboard for writing long e-mails, a Macbook might be a better option for you. Also, since the iPad doesn't support Flash, you may also want a real computer that can access Web pages that use Flash.

By contrast, the iPad and other tablets are geared more toward people who already have a computer at home. Because they don't have the storage and other capability of a full-blown computer, tablets make a nice complement to these devices. That said, there are plenty of very cool things about owning an iPad or some other tablet.

It's lighter and therefore easier to carry around and more portable than a laptop. Also the easy-on aspect of tablets makes them ideal to leave in the living room and use to access e-mail, pictures, or even manage your home music collection (if you're music is stored in the cloud or you can access a computer at home where your music is stored locally.)

Tablets also allow you to consume digital media in a different way. They're great for magazines. And some people like using them as e-readers. The touch screen lends itself nicely to these tasks. And it's also great for playing games.

MacBook Air Apple

But you're also correct in saying that many things that an iPad will do, your iPhone can do as well. The iPad will simply have a bigger screen. But don't underestimate the value of the bigger screen. Some people really love their tablets.

At any rate, I will agree with you that an iPad is not necessary. But it is definitely a nice thing to have, if you've got the extra cash to spend. But for you, who already seems somewhat skeptical, I'd recommend a MacBook Air. It's a full-blown computer that's also thin and lightweight. It's kind of a middle ground between your Toshiba laptop and your iPhone.

I hope you found this advice useful!

Happy holidays to you and all the Ask Maggie readers out there!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.