Suit charges AT&T overcharges as much as 300% for iPhone data

Isn't AT&T the one that overestimated data use on wired nets by 4,700%? Yes, it was.

One of the major risks in complaining about how ISPs treat consumers on what's largely a site people use for work, is that those complaints might seem specious or irrelevant to the audience, at least while they're at work.

Internet connections to the home and those to small businesses largely fall into the same category, however, and so many people use home Internet connections to telecommute or connect their wireless devices to the office for updates, that I figure it's relevant.

I have no doubt of that when I run across a story three months after it first hit the news that reinforces the tendency of carriers – in this case AT&T – to be cavalier about the way they measure and charge for data, whether on wired or wireless networks.

If charges in a class-action lawsuit filed at the end of January are true, businesses whose employees use AT&T for iPhone or iPad connections are getting fleeced just as consumers lawyers filing the suit claim to represent.

Jan. 27 California attorney Patrick Hendricks that charged AT&T "systematically overstated" the amount of data iPhone and iPad customers used every month.

Bills routinely overestimated data use by between 7 percent and 14 percent, according to the lawsuit, though errors ranged as high as 300 percent.

AT&T said the charges show the people complaining don't understand how data is measured and billed for wireless use.

"Overcharges" mainly reflect apps that check for new weather, news or other information automatically, download updates automatically or do other things in the background that consumers may not realize.

AT&T will defend itself "vigorously," which usually means trying to settle before the case goes to court to minimize the PR impact, whether the charges are true or not.

The Today show ran a piece on it yesterday; so much for squelching the PR impact.

This is the same AT&T customers said in March is so inept at measuring the data they use on wired Internet connections that it underestimates data volume 90 percent to 100 percent one day, and overestimates data consumption 4,700 percent the next.

Those measures are for use against a 250GB/month data cap. Data-use metrics on iPhones are for data-use charges that increase rapidly with comparatively small amounts of data, in both consumer and business accounts.

That makes AT&T sound like a perfect candidate for some objective test of accuracy in data-use measurement.

If the tests whose results Hendricks mentioned in the suit are accurate, AT&T failed dramatically.

Hendricks said he hired an independent consulting firm to measure the overcharges, including testing one iPhone after turning off all push notifications, location services and all other apps or services that could be expected to check in to the network for regular updates.

The consultants let the phone sit for ten days, turned on but not being used.

AT&T allegedly billed for 2,292KB of data the phone is supposed to have used during that time.

Charges per month added up to about $15 more than they should have been, the suit alleges. There are about 20 million iPhones and iPads connected to AT&T's network.

If the charge on overcharging is true, that's $300 million in straight profit to AT&T.

That doesn't sound like the kind of accuracy business or consumer customers would be happy to see in their net-access billing. It also doesn't sound like the kind of self-knowledge necessary for consumers, businesses or regulators to trust that AT&T is being honest and accurate in its imposition and policing of data caps.

It's the kind of abuse you'd expect the FCC and FTC to get interested in and investigate aggressively as part of their mission to protect consumers against exploitation by companies with near-monopolies in their industries.

So far, though, the FCC continues to sit on the sidelines, nattering about how hard carriers are working to expand the abilities of their networks and how important it is to give them more leeway when they make occasional, isolated mistakes.

AT&T, at least, seems very consistent in the kinds of mistakes it makes, especially if they're the profitable kind.

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