AT&T Wireless customers with unlimited data plans are crying foul over a policy that seemingly punishes the heaviest users, throttling their download speeds to a snail’s pace.

Those considered among the top five percent of data users in their areas are being affected by a new AT&T policy that cuts those people’s data speeds to manage usage on the wireless networks — reducing download speeds by up to 99 percent.

Translation? A web page that normally takes about a second to load could take upwards of almost two minutes.

AT&T has roughly 17 million customers on “unlimited data” plans. It stopped offering those plans as an option for new customers in 2010, and warned last year that it would start slowing speeds for people deemed the heaviest data users.

And it doesn’t take much to trigger it — many are saying they’ve been throttled after using less than what the wireless provider allots customers on its “limited” plans. What’s more, they report that when they’ve called AT&T to complain, customer service reps have suggested they switch to one of those limited plans instead.

“They’re coaxing you toward the tiered plan,” said Gregory Tallman in Hopatcong, N.J., who’s received texts from AT&T warning that he’s approaching his limit after using just 1.5 gigabytes of data in a billing cycle — half of the 3 gigabytes of data offered in a tiered plan for the same price as his unlimited plan.

Some customers are so upset that they’re considering switching carriers. Verizon also throttles its top 5 percent of users, but only if the cell tower they’re connected to is congested at the moment. When things clear up, speeds return to normal — but once AT&T throttles someone’s usage, it stays slow for the entire billing cycle.

AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel said the company doesn’t actually throttle everyone in its top 5 percent of “unlimited” data users, only those in areas where the wireless network is congested that month. He said only 0.5 percent of customers, or about 200,000 people, were affected in January.

He also pointed out heavy data users can avail themselves of one of AT&T’s 30,000 Wi-Fi hotspots — where usage is unmetered.

Technically, AT&T isn’t in breach of contract. They’re still providing unlimited data usage to throttled customers, even if the speeds are so slow that the phone is basically useless for anything but phone calls and texting.

“They just guaranteed the highway,” Tallman conceded. “They didn’t guarantee the speed limit.”

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