March 2, 2012 at 10:33 am

What AT&T’s New Data Limits Mean for Music Fans

att wirelessResponding to complaints about its practice of limiting data plans it sold as “unlimited,” AT&T clarified the amount of wireless data its smartphone customers can use before it starts throttling their bandwidth this week.

The new limits at which AT&T will slow down users’ bandwidth: 3GB per month for smartphone users or 5GB for subscribers to its more expensive “LTE” plans. Previously, AT&T said it would throttle the top 5 percent of data users, leaving customers confused about when their “unlimited” plans would be limited.

For music fans who like to stream their music from Spotify or other services, these data limits are a mental if not actual barrier against listening to legally-acquired music. Nobody wants to see their bandwidth throttled towards the end of a given month in return for listening to music they paid to hear.

One option for music fans who want to stay clear of those limits is to keep downloading MP3s from iTunes, BitTorrent, Amazon, MP3 blogs, sneakernet, and other sources that offer downloads, rather than subscribing to a streaming service. Another is to rely on the ability of some streaming services to store music for offline playback after syncing it via WiFi.

Assuming you don’t want to keep living the download life in a streaming world, here’s how much music AT&T’s new wireless data limits allow you to listen to each day, assuming you use your phone for nothing else, at a few different bit rates. Remember, the higher the bit rate, the better the music sounds:

Regular plan for 3G and 4G smartphones

  • 32 Kbps (Pandora’s most efficient rate): about 7 hours per day
  • 128 Kbps (standard digital music bit rate): about 1.8 hours per day
  • 320 Kbps (MOG’s and Spotify’s maximum bit rate): about 45 minutes per day

LTE plan

  • 32 Kbps: about 12 hours per day
  • 128 Kbps: about 3 hours per day
  • 320 Kbps: about 1.2 hours per day

This might sound like a lot of music, especially using the hyper-efficient 32 Kbps bit rate music. However, keep in mind that every time you read your email, check Facebook, download apps, use the web, watch a video, and so on, your monthly supply of available wireless data decreases. The above numbers assume that you use your phone solely for streaming music.

Once a user hits the limit, AT&T sends them a text message alerting them to the fact that their account will be throttled for the remainder of the month. Some users have reported that web pages can take as long as two minutes to load using a throttled account.

Update: As the Future of Music Coalition points out, AT&T also wants media and app companies to pay for the bandwidth used by their subscribers.

  • J. Ham

    These calculations are also assuming one never connects to Wi-Fi, no?

  • Tony R.

    Instead of extorting their customers, AT&T and other providers in the U.S. should spend at least the same amount of effort increasing the capacity of their networks. A large amount of “dark fiber” that has been installed in the last 10-15 years is still lying unused underground and new technologies are allowing much more traffic per optical fiber than ever before.