FCC Fines T-Mobile For Abusing The Definition Of 'Unlimited' Data

from the abusing-the-dictionary dept

For the better part of the last decade, wireless carriers have had an often vicious, adversarial relationship with the dictionary. More specifically, they’ve struggled repeatedly with the definition of the word “unlimited,” often pitching data services that proclaim to be unlimited, only to saddle users with onerous, often confusing restrictions. For the last decade, regulators have tried to cure them of this behavior, from Verizon paying $1 million to New York’s Attorney General in 2007, to the FCC fining AT&T $100 million last year.

Yet despite repeated warnings, the problem persists. Case in point: this week the FCC announced it had struck a $48 million settlement with T-Mobile (pdf) for advertising unlimited data plans without making it clear the limitations of these connections. More specifically, the FCC says T-Mobile didn’t clearly inform consumers that these “unlimited” lines would be throttled during periods of network congestion, or after users consumed 17 GB of data in any given month:

“The FCC?s investigation found that company policy allows it to slow down data speeds when T-Mobile or MetroPCS customers on so-called ?unlimited? plans exceed a monthly data threshold. Company advertisements and other disclosures may have led unlimited data plan customers to expect that they were buying better and faster service than what they received. The Commission?s 2010 Open Internet transparency rules require broadband Internet providers to give accurate and sufficient information to consumers about their Internet services so consumers can make informed choices.”

All told, T-Mobile will pay a $7.5 million fine and dole out $35.5 million in “consumer benefits” (mostly just minor discounts on select hardware and plans) from T-Mobile and its prepaid subsidiary MetroPCS. This will, the FCC insists, surely teach T-Mobile a lesson about marketing unlimited data tiers that aren’t:

“Consumers should not have to guess whether so-called ?unlimited? data plans contain key restrictions, like speed constraints, data caps, and other material limitations,? said FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc. ?When broadband providers are accurate, honest and upfront in their ads and disclosures, consumers aren?t surprised and they get what they?ve paid for. With today?s settlement, T-Mobile has stepped up to the plate to ensure that its customers have the full information they need to decide whether ?unlimited? data plans are right for them.”

While this sounds superficially nice, there are a few problems with the FCC’s move here. For one thing, the FCC has been making it abundantly clear that it’s ok to sell “unlimited” plans with all manner of misleading limits — you just have to make sure your marketing fine print makes those limitations clear. And while that’s good, these kinds of wrist slaps clearly aren’t working. And just ensuring transparency is not the end of this particular conversation.

For example, T-Mobile’s and Sprint’s newest plans, which the FCC hasn’t raised a peep about, offer users “unlimited” connections, but throttle all games, video and music unless users shell out a monthly premium if they actually want these services to work as intended. That’s a fairly obvious violation of net neutrality principles and an abuse of the word “unlimited,” yet the FCC has made it abundantly clear it thinks this sort of behavior is perfectly ok. In other words, you can be a misleading cheat. You just have to make it clear you’re a misleading cheat via fine print in your three-hundred page terms of service.

We’ve noted repeatedly how the FCC simply refuses to acknowledge how usage caps and zero rating are causing significant problems, and it doesn’t look like it’s an issue that’s going to get fixed anytime soon. While current FCC boss Tom Wheeler’s pro-consumer bent was a surprise to many (especially given his cable and wireless lobbying past), there are growing signs that his tenure will be up at the end of the year. And given the particular leanings of both Trump and Clinton, there’s certainly no guarantee his replacement will have the political courage to stand up for consumers and finish what Wheeler started.

Filed Under: , , ,
Companies: t-mobile

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “FCC Fines T-Mobile For Abusing The Definition Of 'Unlimited' Data”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
27 Comments
DannyB (profile) says:

Causing significant problems?

Zero Rating and Usage Caps don’t cause anyone significant problems. Unless you’re talking about those pesky customers. Oh, yeah. Them again. But for the mobile operators and ISPs zero rating is a great revenue double dipping scam. And usage caps can be a way to upsell customers, yes, those pesky nuisance customers again, to a more expensive service plan.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Subtle but significant? I’m not buying it. I think Bode is making things up.

> It can also damage sites like reddit, as users become unsure as to which videos are zero rated and which will push them over their data caps.

Wouldn’t it be great if nothing was zero-rated? That way they would know for sure which videos are using their data – all of them. That would be so much better for Reddit, right?

If there have been significant problems, list the worst of them. Even better would be to come up with an estimate of the net economic effect. I’d be surprised if it was a negative number.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Its unquestionably an economic albatross for the Internet where Zero-Rating is used. It inserts yet another middleman that gets to decide which businesses are winners and which are losers online. It might help pad Comcast’s bottom line, but it’ll hurt everyone else’s.

I’d be surprised if you aren’t receiving a paycheck from a telecom company.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I wish I was getting a paycheck for commenting on this blog…

I’m just asking Bode to back up his “significant problems” claim. I think that’s wishful thinking on his part.

I don’t have a problem with zero-rating programs so far because they are open and don’t require any payment by the service provider. If T-Mobile were to start restricting who could join or required a fee to join, then my position may change.

I don’t see it all that different than when my bank refunds ATM fees that I pay when using many out-of-network ATMs.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re:

One of the several problems with Zero Rating is that the customer is now paying for their bandwidth twice.

I pay for my bandwidth.
Netflix pays (quite handsomely) for its bandwidth.

Now comes the evil zero rating . . .

The ISP charges Netflix for zero rating. Netflix ultimately will pass that cost along to customers. Now Netflix is paying it’s own ISP (handsomely) for it’s bandwidth, and Netflix is paying MY ISP. And I am paying my ISP.

My ISP is double dipping.

If My ISP doesn’t like how much bandwidth I’m using on Netflix, then CHARGE ME FOR IT. It is ME using that bandwidth, not Netflix. Netflix doesn’t just magically start using bandwidth on my connection. I am using that bandwidth, for my own pleasure, at my own request. Netflix is just answering my requests with responses.

The double dipping, that’s what’s wrong (or one of several things wrong) with zero rating. I’m paying my ISP for my bandwidth, and I’m paying my ISP for Netflix being able to be zero rated — which is not something I need if I had a fair bandwidth cap.

And that brings me to bandwidth caps. TD has already had stories covering how bandwidth caps are not necessary. The only reason for bandwidth caps is to have a way to introduce the scam of Zero Rating. Without bandwidth caps that scam couldn’t exist.

Hope that helps clear things up.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Ad networks should have to pay their own freight. If they’re going to start playing a video through the ad, they darn well ought to be paying for that bandwidth.

How about the ISPs charge ad networks to be zero rated?

And ad networks that aren’t zero rated are blocked by the ISP.

I think I like that plan.

My ISP gets more money from the advertiser.

If the advertiser is paying to be zero rated, then my user agent will block the ad at my own browser. So I’m still safe and secure and oblivious to having web pages polluted with twitching screaming blinking seizure inducing ads.

Victor Holness says:

improper billing statements over billing for data plans.

Next month will be 1 year with T-mobile..it been a nightmare because service in my area is limited to T’mobile, PCS mobile’ and some basic nor wifi service company, t-mobile and pcs-mobile are co-companies joined at the hip and if to by a phone at T-mobile their sister company will not honor its use on their network forcing you to buy another phone with them or worst service,both have the habit of receiving your money on time for billing but not entering it on your account for 24-48 hours later, causing your due dates to change each month with additional fees! Hmmm? if you call in to pay that can take 15 minutes or two hours of waiting only for your payments to be entered late once again..the give you the option of allowing them to remove it from your account .. honesty after all that who would be so stupid to trust a company that’s ripping you off in the first place..I don’t but ITS catch 22 because the other companies are an hours drive away and the phone lines were at on time owned by At&t who the heck owns them now..”I have no Idea” But what you article reports has happened to me by both those companies and still even this month with T-mobile and I thought I was the only one because after moving here I found myself surrounded by people who never fight back(sadly I would really enjoy a good open Fight for justice and our community.)So lastly who do I need to get it touch with to get my over payments back? T-Mobile has said nothing to me!

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »