Verizon Begins Throttling Wireless Users, Effectively Bans 4K Streaming

from the goodbye,-net-neutrality dept

Thanks to a little something called competition, Verizon Wireless was forced recently to bring back unlimited data plans, after spending the last few years trying to tell consumers they neither wanted nor needed such plans (narrator: they did). But all has not been well in Verizon-land since, with several network performance reports indicating that Verizon’s network configuration was struggling a little under the load of these new unlimited users. That’s a problem for a company that justifies its higher prices by insisting it offers the best-available wireless network.

A few weeks back, customers complained when Verizon began throttling YouTube and Netflix customers without telling anybody, only to subsequently admit they were conducting a “test.” Fast forward to this week, and Verizon Wireless has announced a complete revamp of its “unlimited” data plans that severely restrict how your mobile connection can be used.

The short version: Verizon is moving away from its fairly decent, competition-induced unlimited data plan (which generally let you do what you wanted with your connection), and replacing it with three, worse “unlimited” options:

  • Go Unlimited: $75/month for one line. Video capped to 480p on smartphones, 720p on tablets.
  • Beyond Unlimited: $85/month for one line. Video capped to 720p on smartphones, 1080p on tablets.
  • Business Unlimited: Price varies. Video capped to 480p on smartphones, 720p on tablets.
  • A few things of note. One, with this move, Verizon is joining the rest of the wireless sector in charging you more money to use your wireless connection as you’d like, requiring you pay $10 more just to stream HD video as transmitted. Two, the company is effectively banning 4K streaming, and no matter what kind of device you’re using, won’t be delivering more than 10 Mbps to any traffic Verizon’s network gear identifies as video. So, if for some reason you wanted fully unthrottled video from a company server — there’s no way to get it. Verizon’s not letting you access unthrottled video, period.

    On its surface, this isn’t something most consumers will notice… yet. The difference between 720p and 1080p on a small smartphone screen is negligible, so Verizon quite correctly assumes that most customers won’t care. It’s also worth noting that even under former FCC boss Tom Wheeler and his 2015 rules, the FCC was turning a blind eye to both this (charging users more to avoid having games, video and music throttled) and zero rating (exempting an ISPs own content from usage caps while hindering competitors), something we have repeatedly stated was a mistake that would come back to bite consumers eventually.

    The bigger issue moving forward is of the slippery slope variety. Today, Verizon has decided that it’s the one that gets to determine how much more you get to pay for higher-quality video, or if you have the option at all. With the company at the vanguard of an assault on existing net neutrality protections, you can be guaranteed that restrictions like this will only grow. The value proposition will also steadily decline as Verizon takes full advantage of Ajit Pai’s quest to free some of the least liked, and most anti-competitive companies in America of most meaningful regulatory oversight .

    With said oversight on vacation, that leaves it to competition to keep Verizon Wireless on its best behavior. But with those same apathetic regulators resulting in a wave of almost-mindless merger mania, there’s no indication that competition will be sticking around. Once Sprint merges with T-Mobile (which most expect to happen this year), there’s going to be less pressure than ever on Verizon to avoid hamstringing your wireless connection further. So while you might not care about what Verizon’s doing today, the company is only laying the foundation for some truly obnoxious behavior you’re going to care a lot about tomorrow.

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    Companies: verizon

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    Comments on “Verizon Begins Throttling Wireless Users, Effectively Bans 4K Streaming”

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    Anonymous Coward says:

    How does this work?

    Is there some sort of malware they’ll push to Verizon-branded phones to block this, or are they doing it at the network level? If network, maybe someone just needs to write a proxy that connects to and negotiates HTTPS, and then we send all the requests through that (“domain fronting”).

    Anonymous Coward says:

    While we may have laughed at them for years, AMT and CCI are today going strong along with a few other commmunication infrastructure REITs. While not owning the infrastructure directly can bite the carriers, I wonder if spinning the infrastructure out into REITs won’t be the best of all worlds for all involved.

    It won’t directly prohibit anything, but it is making it easier to compete assuming neutrality of the REIT (REITs are forced to be very open about their economy at least, making them more vulnerable to bias-accusations since any use is good use) and it is removing some of the behind the curtain grey area from ISPs.

    It is not a direct solution to anything, but it might just be in everybodys interest to walk that way.

    sigalrm (profile) says:

    Re: Use a VPN!

    Leaving aside the question of finding a VPN platform that can be used to stream 4k video, it should be noted that a VPN doesn’t necessarily help here.

    Practically speaking, there are a limited # of activities one can utilize a mobile phone for that will consume as much data as a video stream on a sustained basis.

    If you run a 1080p or better video stream over your mobile device for any real length of time, Verizon will be able to make some very intelligent guesses as to what you’re doing without having to know the specifics.

    Cue Rate Limiting.

    R.H. (profile) says:

    Re: Re: Use a VPN!

    It’s possible to set up a VPN on an in home wireline internet connection and VPN to it. I fondly remember setting up something like that to get around the proxy at my high school back in the day.

    I also somewhat less fondly remember having to use something like that to deal with the school proxy over-blocking things when I went back there to help with an after school robotics program a few years later so my knowledge, unfortunately, isn’t exactly out of date on the subject.

    sigalrm (profile) says:

    Re: Re: Re: Use a VPN!

    I’d suggest that it’s a mistake to equate the technical capabilities of an overworked, multi-tasked School District network administrator with the technical capabilities of a telco network analyst.

    Yes, you can tunnel everything except the metadata.

    Having worked on the telco engineering side: Metadata is pretty much always sufficient to perform whatever network management function is needed. If Verizon wants to rate limit video traffic encapsulated in an IPSec, SSL, l2tp, or whatever tunnel technology tunnel, it’s a safe bet that they can.

    Anonymous Coward says:

    Re: Re: Re:2 Use a VPN!

    Yes, you can tunnel everything except the metadata.

    Most metadata would enter the tunnel in encrypted form, including addresses and likely QOS bits. Detecting that it’s video traffic in the tunnel would have to be based on packet timing/sizes, and video streaming should look a lot like a download (a constant-ish rate data stream with minimal return traffic).

    sigalrm (profile) says:

    Re: Re: Re:3 Use a VPN!

    Exactly. Duration of the stream would be an indicator, as well.

    If the telco sees multiple sequential constant-ish rate downloads with minimal return traffic, lasting either 20-23 minutes or 45-49 minutes (standard 30/60 minute US tv time block, minus commercials) and they can be reasonably certain it’s video.

    Coupled with many VPN platforms being trivially fingerprinted and identifiable by the types of network equipment in use by telco’s, and it gets to be pretty easy to either QOS the user or the VPN platform down to an “acceptable” rate by the telco.

    They don’t have to be exact, just close enough. And since 3rd party VPN performance is generally pretty lacking, being locked to a 10mbps stream may not actually be noticeable to the user.

    Roger Strong (profile) says:


    Aren’t most Netflix and other video streams encrypted? How are they downgrading the video to 480p without doing a man-in-the-middle attack, decrypting and then re-encrypting it? Or at least inserting their own commands telling Netflix to choose a lower resolution?

    If they can intercept, decrypt and reformat THAT data, they could probably do it with online bill payments and retail transactions. I sense a new internet tax / revenue stream coming.

    Anonymous Coward says:

    Re: Wait....

    Aren’t most Netflix and other video streams encrypted? How are they downgrading the video to 480p without doing a man-in-the-middle attack, decrypting and then re-encrypting it?

    They’re going to limit video services to 10 Mbps, which may make the apps/sites switch to lower resolutions themselves. That leaves the question of how they’ll detect the services (traffic analysis of some kind?), and whether we can trick them.

    Or at least inserting their own commands telling Netflix to choose a lower resolution?

    Some ISPs have caches for Youtube, Netflix, etc. Those companies cooperate to make sure their apps choose the local caches, which are supposed to be fast–but it would be easy for an ISP to put all those boxes on a separate network and rate-limit all streams to them.

    Machin Shin says:

    Re: Re: Wait....

    They do adjust the quality of video to best match your connection. So throttle the connection and the video provider does the rest.

    This makes sense because Netflix wants do do everything they can to keep you happy and your not going to be happy if your watching a video buffer, instead they just lower the quality till you can watch without buffering.

    sigalrm (profile) says:

    Re: Wait....

    From a technical perspective, Verizon is probably using QOS to rate limit streams identified as Netflix traffic to 10mbps.

    The Netflix client registers packet loss and sends feedback to netflix, which then downgrades video quality until the client no longer reports dropped packets. This results in a graduated step-down in video quality from 4k -> 1080 -> 720 -> 480.

    On the Verizon side, it’s just math: determine how much bandwidth is needed for each video tier and drop anything above that value.

    MyNameHere (profile) says:

    Oh Boo hoo!

    You have to love first world problems, “I can’t stream my 4k videos!”.

    Is this really a big issue?

    If you want a big issue, let’s discuss total possible bandwidth for a cellular tower. It isn’t an unlimited resource. There is a limit. From what I could find, you are looking at about 100mbps per “sector”, with most towers having three sectors. Each one maxes at 100, so a total of 300 per tower. 4G video would be 10mbps or more, so that would be 10% of a sector to service a single stream.

    It’s not intelligent to assume that this is something they would support.

    I don’t have a problem with a wireless carrier putting limits on all things as a group to handle network load. Video is a big user and it makes sense. It’s not a net neutrality issue if it’s applied evenly to all video providers.

    Anonymous Coward says:

    Re: Oh Boo hoo!

    Throttling on class of traffic regardless of the load on a tower is not a reasonable approach to network management. Indeed a tower that is congested should simply manage its traffic to give everybody equal services regardless of where the traffic comes from.

    This is a direct attack on video streaming over the Internet, as it throttles the stream even if it is the only data passing through the tower, like for example in the early hours of the morning, and no other user of the service in that area is using it.

    MyNameHere (profile) says:

    Re: Re: Oh Boo hoo!

    Throttling a class at all times is actually very good management. Network management isn’t just about managing available bandwidth, it’s about not creating expectations that you cannot meet.

    If video is solid capped at 10meg a second, no matter what, you never create the expectation of more. Someone might be up at 3AM and suddenly they are streaming 4k video because the network is relatively quiet. The next day, they try to do the same and it no longer works. Yeah, they are calling their provider names. But if the video last night ran at 10meg, and runs today at 10 meg, they have the same expectations over time.

    The levels they are capping at are VERY high, more than enough for HD quality video.

    Talmyr (profile) says:

    Re: Re: Re: Oh Boo hoo!

    There’s nothing wrong with that. Plenty of electricity users get discounts for non-peak hour usage. Some companies openly throttle internet at peak hours. It would be a better way to encourage people to distribute their ‘load’ better.

    Of course, actually investing in network development (and using all those pocketed subsidies) would be better for the welfare-queen ISPs.

    Jeremy Lyman (profile) says:

    Size doesn't matter...

    Preface: I’ll never be a Verizon Wireless customer again and I’ve been trying to explain for years that there is no such thing as "unlimited" and Verizon et al shouldn’t be selling it because they can’t provide it.

    I wouldn’t have thought this was a big deal a few weeks ago. I’m normally an advocate of "Stop. Think. Your screen isn’t big enough to warrant 4k." That’s because you probably don’t sit close enough. But my wife just got a new phone and a vr headset came with it. I assumed it was a gimick, but I tried it out with a few videos. WOW. I was blown away with the effect, and as we get displays with higher PPI there will be a need for higher resolution content. Frankly, a 5 inch device strapped to my face needs higher resolution than a 10 inch tablet on my lap. Default policies based on device size isn’t a good way to prioritize network requirements.

    Isma'il says:

    US Cellular has been doing this for a while

    Don’t fault just Verizon, regional carrier US Cellular has been capping data speeds to 480p video with their “Unlimited Data” plan and 780p video with their “Unlimited Plus” plan since the start of the program a few months ago. Their rationale: “Network Management.” Their tiered data plans are not affected, though.

    Sooner or later, all of them will be doing it, and good luck suing them for false advertising because the policy is in the “fine print.”

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