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Sprint will slow down heaviest users of unlimited data

The company is putting its foot down on its unlimited plan, which once represented the cornerstone of its monthly subscriptions.

Customers will see a slowdown after using 23GB of data in a month.
Lynn La/CNET

All good things must come to an end. For customers on Sprint's unlimited plan, the days of free-flowing data are over.

Starting Friday, the nation's fourth-largest wireless operator will begin "throttling," or slowing down, the connection speed for its heaviest unlimited-data customers, the company said. You really need to work to get in Sprint's sights, though. Customers won't see a slowdown until they hit 23 gigabytes in a month, or enough data to stream all five seasons of the HBO series "Game of Thrones." The average user consumes about 3GB of data per month.

The policy change comes as the carrier, which over the summer slipped to the No. 4 position, struggles to improve its service amid tough competition from rivals AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile.

Sprint's decision is the latest roadblock thrown at unlimited-data customers. The company raised the price of its unlimited plan by $10 this month. The change is also a sign of the increasing cost of delivering data.

The Overland Park, Kansas, company said that excessive users of unlimited data ruin the experience for those around them.

"This practice is intended to protect against a small minority of unlimited customers who use high volumes of data and unreasonably take up network resources during times when the network is constrained," said John Saw, Sprint's chief technology officer.

Sprint had previously attempted to throttle heavy users, going after the top 5 percent of its subscribers each month, but it suspended that policy in June.

AT&T and Verizon abandoned their unlimited-data plans years ago, complaining they were economically unviable as consumers started to use more data. They allowed customers with "grandfathered" unlimited data to keep their plans. T-Mobile, which also throttles customers after 23GB of data, and Sprint continued to offer unlimited-data plans to everyone in an effort to attract customers from their two bigger rivals.

Unlimited data is a double-edged sword for carriers. While it attracts new customers, many of them tend to be the heaviest users of data.

T-Mobile has called out those excessive users. CEO John Legere publishing an angry blog post in August that slammed customers who used workarounds to turn their phones into mobile hotspots that eat through more than 2 terabytes of data per month.

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Regulators, however, have recently begun scrutinizing the carriers' practice. In June, the Federal Communications Commission threatened to fine AT&T $100 million for deceiving its customers by mislabeling its service as unlimited. The FCC also challenged Verizon when the company planned to expand its data throttling policy to its 4G customers. The company retracted that policy last fall. In June, Verizon also stopped slowing unlimited-data traffic for 3G customers.

Sprint defended its new policy. "That's a lot of data," Saw said, "and it's far more than most customers ever use in a typical billing cycle."

Sprint said customers will still be able to use unlimited amounts of data without overage charges, but for moments when the network is congested, traffic from heavy-data customers will move more slowly. Sprint said the policy operates in real time and only applies if a cell site is constrained. Performance for an affected customer returns to normal as soon as the local traffic returns to normal.

Update, 2:43 p.m. PT: To include additional details on T-Mobile CEO John Legere's blog post.