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Could Apple Be to Blame in the AT&T Lawsuit?

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AT&T, the carrier you love to hate, is the target of a new lawsuit which alleges the company is overcharging iPhone and iPad users. The suit, which is currently seeking class action status, was filed by AT&T customer Patrick Hendricks. According to The Atlantic, Hendricks left a newly bought iPhone unused for 10 days -- no apps were running, email wasn't set up, and all location services and push notifications were disabled.

During that time period, mysteriously, 35 data transactions totaling 2,292 KB of usage were racked up on the device.

Now, had this type of transfer occurred when AT&T still allowed unlimited data plans, the fallout would be less severe. However, other than for those grandfathered in or who ask nice, AT&T places data caps on all of its iPhone users. And should those customers exceed the data allotment, they are charged an extra $15. In some situations, that phantom data usage could be enough to push a user over the predetermined limit.

The consulting firm Hendricks hired to investigate the matter discovered in a two-month study that AT&T typically overstated web traffic by seven to 14%, but also went as high as 300%. The case compared the billing to a "rigged gas pump charging you when you never even pulled your car into the station."

An AT&T representative was quick to respond to the matter on

"Transparent and accurate billing is a top priority for AT&T. In fact, we've created tools that let our customers check their voice and data usage at any time during their billing cycle to help eliminate bill surprises. We have only recently learned of the complaint, but I can tell you that we intend to defend ourselves vigorously."

Vigorous or not, it wouldn't be the first time AT&T overcharged its users, as The Atlantic's Nicholas Jackson pointed out. "In mid-2005, AT&T acknowledged that it had overcharged tens of thousands of customers in Texas by more than $800,000 since January of the previous year," he wrote. Sounds like this could be par for the course.

But is AT&T really to blame? PCWorld's Tony Bradley suspects the fault may lie with Apple.

After relegating each of his family members' iPhone or iPad devices to the 200MB monthly plans, Bradley began noticing huge upticks in usage. He wrote, "I work from home. My wife works from home. My son is home schooled. We rarely leave the house, which means we are connected to Wi-Fi rather than 3G 99% of the time, so none of our data usage should have any impact on the AT&T data plans."

Bradley did some investigating of his own and he realized that around the time AT&T dropped the unlimited data plan, Apple introduced multitasking for the iOS. "Do you know how many apps are running in the background right now on your iPhone or iPad?" Bradley asked. "Basically, every app you have ever used. Go ahead. Double-tap the home button on your device and see just how many apps are active."

He points to applications running in the background and sucking down data as possible culprits in the phantom data usage. Bradley noted that once he shut down every app after use, his data usage issues disappeared.

But with all due respect to Bradley, that doesn't explain Hendricks' experience with data traffic despite NO apps running at all. And if the family is indeed connected to Wi-Fi "99% of the time," why is AT&T's 3G network getting involved?

Certainly, anyone who's been nabbed for exceeding their data cap will be interested in the outcome of this case -- especially if it achieves class action status and they can get a couple bucks back on an exorbitant monthly bill.
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