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AT&T offers unlimited plan deal for first responders, but it can be throttled

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Unlimited should mean unlimited, but it only sometimes does

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

AT&T has a new promotion that offers first responders and their families discounts on unlimited plans. Firefighters, paramedics, and police officers can opt for 25 percent off either of the unlimited plans AT&T announced back in June, shortly after it acquired Time Warner. But in the fine print, AT&T admits it may throttle data speeds “when the network is congested.” The discount on this unlimited plan is separate from AT&T’s FirstNet offering, a network the company recently began operating specifically for first responders on the field.

Just last month, Verizon came under scrutiny for throttling firefighters’ data as they fought wildfires in California. As a result, those first responders were unable to track and route resources to fight fires effectively, and they ultimately had to sign up for a new plan in order to get data speeds back to normal.

Verizon apologized in the aftermath and promised to launch a new plan in a week for first responders to get unlimited data with no caps. (It’s been exactly two weeks, but Verizon hasn’t come out with the plan yet. In a statement to The Verge, Verizon said: “We’ve delivered new plan terms for public safety to the various national and state agencies that approve state and local contracts. Once accepted by the states, customers can take advantage of these plans.”)

While it’s common for carriers to throttle users on unlimited plans after a certain allotment has been reached, as Verizon learned, that can lead to real problems when those users are first responders who are working in emergencies.

AT&T says that first responders looking for completely unlimited internet without data speed caps should opt for the undiscounted FirstNet plan. AT&T was contracted by the US government to built out FirstNet, which offers features that specifically cater to first responders. The company says that it’s actively promoting FirstNet, but at the same time, its promotion page doesn’t make a mention of the superior plan at all.

In an email, AT&T clarified that the promotional plans subject to throttling are for first responders’ personal use and family plans. “We’re offering first responders and their family members a discount on the consumer plans available today for their personal use,” a spokesperson said. “These lines and devices are separate than the FirstNet lines purchased and issued by the first responder agencies, which do not have a data limit.”

The deal allows first responders to choose between the AT&T Unlimited & More plan or the Unlimited & More Premium plan, which has more entertainment add-ons to choose from, including HBO, Showtime, and Amazon Music. With the ongoing promotion, a single line alone on Unlimited & More will cost $52.50 a month, while four lines on a plan would cost $30 a month per person. Unlimited & More Premium costs $60 a month for a single line, and $35.62 a month per person for four lines.

Still, not every first responder qualifies for the deal, and it’s not entirely easy to redeem the offer. Federal government employees and agencies in Massachusetts don’t qualify. Only active primary first responders can get the deal, not secondary or retired responders. And to prove you qualify, you’ll need to stop by an AT&T store in person and bring four pieces of documentation to prove your employment: an employee badge, a fresh paystub, a 1099 tax form from last year, and a signed affidavit from a first responder agency.

When it comes to throttling, AT&T has been here plenty of times before. A study this week found that AT&T and Verizon are throttling mobile video platforms like Netflix and YouTube more now that net neutrality is dead.

At least this time, AT&T is admitting that it throttles data speeds on unlimited plans. In 2015, the FCC fined AT&T $100 million for misleading customers about its unlimited data plan. Back then, FCC Enforcement Bureau chief Travis LeBlanc said: “Unlimited means unlimited ... the commission is committed to holding accountable those broadband providers who fail to be fully transparent about data limits.”

Update September 7th, 6:05PM ET: This article has been updated with a statement from Verizon about its new unlimited plan for first responders that won’t be throttled, and clarified the difference between this and FirstNet. It also corrected an editing error: AT&T acquired Time Warner, not the reverse. We regret the error.