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Death to unlimited data plans

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AT&T has finally figured out how to fix its much-maligned US mobile data services: stop users from eating up so frickin' much bandwidth.

As reported by the Associated Press, president and CEO of AT&T Mobility Ralph de la "Darth" Vega told attendees at a New York investors' conference on Wednesday that his company plans to force data-plan subscribers to "reduce or modify their usage."

In Darth's world, consumers are dumb and selfish data-piggies. "We've got to get them to understand what represents a megabyte of data," he said.

We're not all sinners in his eyes, however: only three per cent of smartphone users eat up 40 per cent of AT&T's capacity, he said, adding that the hungriest online swine are concentrated in San Francisco and New York.

Hmm...The capital of tech-savvy Silicon Bay Area, and the center of US media. No worries about offending those constituencies, eh?

As part of his high-minded educational effort, AT&T's connectivity Cassandra pointed out that - whodathunkit? - video and audio streaming account for most of that bandwidth hogging. Note to Pandora, Last.fm, and Shoutcast, and oh-so-many others: Darth is planning to swing his bandwidth-slicing lightsaber directly at your revenue streams.

But the freewheeling, freeloading, free-bandwidth days are numbered. Although he didn't assign a date to when the data hammer will drop, Darth did say that bandwidth metering and usage-based pricing is inescapable.

Right now, however, AT&T doesn't make it easy - no, make that "possible" - for its subscribers to monitor their bandwidth suckage even if they do know what a megabyte is.

But that will soon change. "We're improving all our systems," said the Mobility man, "to let consumers get real-time information on their data usage."

AT&T has also launched another subscriber-based effort to improve its service - an iPhone app, Mark the Spot (App Store link), that allows disgruntled users to send reports directly to Big Phone when their service is spotty or nonexistent.

AT&T's service-quality iPhone app, Mark the Spot

AT&T calls their service-reporting iPhone app "Mark the Spot" - we call it "Tell Us How Badly We Suck"

Exactly how the free app is supposed to send a resounding FAIL to AT&T when the network is too clogged to be used is uncertain - although the app does include a map-based interface to pinpoint problem areas, then to complain as soon as you find a decent connection.

But perhaps we're being a bit too harsh on Darth and his crew. After all, Mark the Spot is at least an acknowledgement that AT&T's service is woeful. And the company has said that it's working to improve service in some selected cities - including our bandwidth hogging hometown of San Francisco. No hard news yet, however, on improvements in New York, where AT&T admits that up to one-third of all calls are likely to be dropped.

One thing is certain, however: don't expect bandwidth-hungry internet tethering to be available for your AT&T iPhone anytime soon. And odds are that when it does arrive, it will be neither free nor unlimited. ®

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