By Jennifer C. Kerr
WASHINGTON — AT&T is being sued by the government over allegations it misled millions of smartphone customers who were promised unlimited data but had their Internet speeds cut by the company — slowing their ability to open web pages or watch streaming video.
The Federal Trade Commission filed its complaint Tuesday against AT&T Mobility Inc., charging that the telecom company failed to adequately disclose to customers that it would reduce data speeds if they went over a certain amount of data use in a billing cycle.
The practice, known as throttling, slowed web browsing, GPS navigation or streaming videos.
According to the complaint, at least 3.5 million consumers have been affected. Some customers, the agency said, had data speeds slowed by nearly 90 percent.
“If you make a promise about unlimited service, we expect you to fulfill those promises,” FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said as she announced the lawsuit.
Ramirez said AT&T stopped offering unlimited data plans in 2010 to new customers. In 2011, she said the company began throttling existing customers with unlimited data plans.
AT&T denied misleading its customers.
“We have been completely transparent with customers since the very beginning,” Wayne Watts, senior executive vice president and general counsel for AT&T, said in a statement. “We informed all unlimited data-plan customers via bill notices and a national press release that resulted in nearly 2,000 news stories, well before the program was implemented.”
In a July 2011 news release, AT&T said demand for mobile data has exploded. To help address “network congestion,” the company said it was taking steps that might reduce data speed for a small group of smartphone users with unlimited plans — those who use lots of data, putting them in the top 5 percent of heaviest users in a billing period.
Ramirez said the disclosures AT&T made to its customers were inadequate. She also said the throttling program AT&T began in 2011 had nothing to do with any type of network congestion.
The FTC said AT&T documents show that the company received thousands of complaints about the slow data speeds.
Maurice Turner, of Anaheim, California, complained about a half-dozen times when he started noticing sharply slower speeds loading Google searches or GPS maps. Some apps would simply crash on him.
“It’s really unfair to have my speed cut down like that,” Turner said in an interview. “It’s unreasonable that only people with unlimited plans are being punished for using the service the way AT&T advertised it.”
Turner says he wants the company to honor the original contract for unlimited data service. Other frustrated customers have cut ties with the company and canceled their contracts. AT&T charged those people early termination fees, according to the FTC complaint — fees that typically total hundreds of dollars.