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Lawsuit claims the carrier overstates data usage, charges for phantom data

AT&T Mobility has been hit with yet another class action lawsuit, the Courthouse News Service reports. The lawsuit alleges that AT&T overstates the amount of data used by iPhone and iPad customers each month, and also charges for phantom data.

The class says AT&T's billing system "is like a rigged gas tank that charges for a full gallon when it pumps only nine-tenths of a gallon into your car's tank." 

Named plaintiff Patrick Hendricks claims that an independent consulting firm that was hired by his counsel discovered these charge. During a two-month study, the firm "found that AT&T systematically overstate web server traffic by 7 percent to 14 percent, and in some instances by over 300 percent. So, for example, if an iPhone user downloads a 50 KB website, AT&T's bill would typically overstated the traffic as 53.5 KB (a 7 percent overcharge) to as high as 150 KB (a 300 percent overcharge)."

On top of this overstatement of data consumption, Hendricks also claims that AT&T charged for data that was never transferred. The same consulting firm purchased an iPhone from an AT&T store and immediately disabled all push notifications, location services, e-mail accounts, etc. Then, they let the device sit untouched for 10 days. "During this 10-day period, AT&T billed the test account for 35 data transactions totaling 2,292 KB of usage. This is like the rigged gas pump charging you when you never even pulled your car into the station," the lawsuit claims.

And while the class claims that these charges have only "a modest effect" on individual customers' bills, "they have a huge effect on AT&T's bottom line." With more than 92 million customers, AT&T could potentially be falsely inflating its revenues if these charges are legitimate.

AT&T is no stranger to class action lawsuits. According to Courthouse News, previous cases have been brought against the carrier claiming it charged for downloads customers never made, charged for services it didn't (or couldn't) deliver, and promised that iPhones could send SMS and MMS, among others.

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RE: I hate to be the one that defends AT&T, but
By Uncle on 2/1/2011 1:45:08 PM , Rating: 3
My problem with this is, why is it always skewered in favour of companies in stead of consumers whenever it is about bits and bytes. I'm sure if the company found out it was in favour of the consumer they would correct the situation promptly.

RE: I hate to be the one that defends AT&T, but
By monitorjbl on 2/1/2011 2:57:30 PM , Rating: 2
That's a fair point, but its not exactly easy to track that sort of thing. You're asking for mobile data companies to keep track of every packet it sends to each customer. Essentially, a counter is updated anytime your device sends or is sent data, which is a low-cost, low-overhead solution used today. If they were to suddenly start keeping a record of the packets that actually made it to your device, they'd have to delve into the actual contents of the packets and determine how much needs to be subtracted from the counter.

No one, especially the poor AT&T network admins, wants to be this nitpicky about the amount of data moving through their systems. 2MB is quite literally insignificant when you're moving many orders of magnitude more data through your network every second. The real solution here is to just make unlimited or at the very least cheaper, bigger data plans. No one with one of those is going to care at all about the extra few megs of lost packets and iOS communiques to Apple.

RE: I hate to be the one that defends AT&T, but
By lballs421 on 2/1/2011 4:17:09 PM , Rating: 3
It actually is really easy to track how much data is transmitted or received while omitting re-transmits. The counter code must be in the Transport Layer of the stack... for example, when you see a TCP ack you then free the retransmit data from the buffer and up the bandwidth counter. This actually required less CPU usage then counting every single packet. Of course this only works for an error correcting protocol such as TCP. It is not possible to detect lost UDP packets from the server side since that data is not acknowledged by the receiver. This is common for things such as streaming audio/video.

By ChristopherO on 2/1/2011 8:30:21 PM , Rating: 2
This isn't quite right though. UDP is a blind transmit and doesn't get an ACK for a successful packet.

However, if you wanted to be "fair", you should reduce the data-charge by the TCP retransmit amount, and use that same percentage and assume that UDP has a roughly-equal percentage (which isn't quite perfect since someone might run Pandora 90% of the time, and only use TCP apps when siting at home on the couch).

By Yames on 2/2/2011 12:59:22 PM , Rating: 2
No it is not easy to track TCP retransmissions because they look exactly like normal transmissions. My guess is that AT&T tracks usage on the network, and TCP lives on the end devices, so either Apple would have to rewrite their iOS TCP stack for this or AT&T would have to have sophisticated monitoring equipment that keeps tracks every TCP session.

And anyway if the loss is not occurring on the AT&T network and is happening lets say at the web server, then how will they know? TCP will not reveal where the loss is.

As for UDP, it will not track loss itself, but can expose the loss to the application above. Look at tools that measure loss (iperf, nuttcp) they use UDP to measure loss as TCP will hide the loss from them.

By Uncle on 2/1/2011 5:09:54 PM , Rating: 2
I'm sure it is easy to do, because the cable companies have just implemented Usage Based Billing, keeping track of each byte I get, making sure I don't go over my cap. They also use it with voip.

By Solandri on 2/1/2011 3:06:50 PM , Rating: 3
It's not skewed in favor of the company. All that's happening is the tools you're using to measure your network usage are only reporting the size of the file you received. It's not reporting the actual amount of network bandwidth consumed to transmit the file, which is what the company is using.

The problem is not with the company, it's with the practice of measuring network bandwidth by transmitted file size. It made sense in wired networks where packet loss is probably less than 0.1% and ethernet overhead is only about 3%. But in wireless networks there's a substantial amount of overhead for handshaking and packet loss. It's why 802.11g is capable of a 54 Mbps data connection, but your actual data throughput will rarely go above 20 Mbps. If cellular networks are able to keep this overhead at 7-14%, that's pretty darned good.

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