Report Finds U.S. Wireless Video Streaming Utterly Mediocre Thanks To Arbitrary Carrier Throttling

from the we're-59th! dept

With net neutrality on the ropes, major U.S. carriers continue to experiment with new ways to nickel-and-dime their subscribers. One of the cornerstones of this new effort involves erecting arbitrary restrictions, then charging mobile consumers extra money to overcome them. Case in point: Sprint’s attempt to charge users more money if they want to avoid arbitrary throttling of games, video, and music. Another example: Verizon’s decision to throttle all video on its network to 480p unless you pay the company for a more expensive, not really “unlimited” data plan.

While carriers like to insist that they only throttle user wireless connections in cases of network congestion, a recent study explored how that wasn’t remotely true. Carriers are increasingly throttling connections just to create arbitrary restrictions, and these restrictions, more often than not, have less and less to do with actual network congestion, and more and more to do with nickel-and-diming subscribers:

“There?s no evidence that any of these policies are only happening during network overload. They?re throttling video traffic even when the network doesn?t need to. It happens 24/7, and in every region where we have tests.”

Another study by Open Signal released last week notes that the United States lags behind dozens of other countries in terms of quality wireless streaming. The report took a closer look at streaming performance across 69 countries, using 90 billion measurements across 8 million devices between May and August of 2018. Countries were then ranked on the quality of their “overall video experience” based on how frequently videos buffered, the resolution of the stream, and overall video load times.

The United States didn’t fare very well. U.S. video quality ranked 59th in terms of overall video quality, and 34th in terms of average speeds. Not too surprisingly, the combination of slower wireless broadband speeds and arbitrary throttling and deprioritization practices carriers engage in are a major reason for the the U.S.’ poor showing:

“Video experience can also be heavily impacted by operator policy. Many operators globally use video optimization technologies to restrict the level of video resolution their customers can access on their phones. As our tests sample video at different resolutions, any downgrading of video quality ? say from HD to SD ? would have an impact on our scores.

The U.S. is a prime example of such policies at work.”

Don’t forget that studies show that U.S. consumers pay significantly more money for mobile bandwidth than users in many developed markets, only to have their actual video quality still ranked terribly. For its part, Open Signal leans heavily on the carrier justification for these arbitrary limits, insisting that they’re done exclusively to protect the network from congestion:

“Depending on the type of video, a 720p stream can consume twice as much or more data than a 480p stream. And as video now accounts for the majority of all mobile internet traffic, a doubling of the gross tonnage of video consumption would have a major impact on any operator’s network. More traffic leads to congestion, and congestion not only impacts overall speeds available to consumers but can also lead to inconsistent connections and poorer latencies ? all of which have a bearing on video experience.”

But that brings us back to that recent study by Northeastern, which showed that carrier throttling of video was in no way related to congestion. Yes, carriers may be eager to tightly restrict video to prevent traffic from being greater to save money, but that may not necessarily mean they’re responding to congestion. As made clear above, most carriers are very interested in erecting artificial tiers of service, where you have to pay more money for a stream to work as the sender originally intended. That’s less to do with congestion, and more to do with trying to make even more money off of American consumers.

With net neutrality dead and federal consumer protection taking a nice long vacation, you’re going to see a hell of a lot more of that type of behavior if the mega-ISPs and the FCC win the looming lawsuit filed by 23 State Attorneys General.

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Comments on “Report Finds U.S. Wireless Video Streaming Utterly Mediocre Thanks To Arbitrary Carrier Throttling”

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Anonymous Coward says:

This is just the new normal, sadly. Think you’re buying cell phone service with access to a fast network? Well, you only get to use a portion of it unless you pay more.

That fancy new electric car with the 400-mile range battery? Not so fast, kiddo. You get 250 miles unless you pony up.

Taking a flight to go on vacation? You’re paying for the seat, but that overhead bin will be an additional fee.

Paying for some, uhhh, “companionship” for the evening? Even kissing on the mouth isn’t included in the price. What has this world come to?

Anonymous Coward says:

So I’m confused and a bit too busy to do the research.

These are “phone” services? So are they regulated by the FCC under Title 2 or are they actually considered internet services and therefore NOT regulated under Title 2? If the latter then would the California Net Neutrality bill apply?

Enquiring minds want to know

Yes I know, Inquiring, …old commercial for a scandal rag

My lawn, off of it you must be

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

They’re under Title II when it comes to getting tax breaks/subsidies and other perks, not under Title II when it comes to anything that might limit their actions/profits.

It’s kinda like how record labels play the license/sale game, where which category a song/album purchase falls under depends entirely on which benefits them the most at a given time.

ALEX NICOLSON (profile) says:

I get you hate Trump.

But the real issue is US Federal Rights/Claims vs. State Rights and claims.

The basic problem is that Federal government is trying to “fix” to many things as they just continue to make things worse. Dept of Education is making US students less educated than 20 other countries. Dept of Health has inverted the life expectancy. Free funds/loans from my grandchildren has driven the cost of a degree up by 3 times the rate of inflation.

There are too many US Government employees that
1) Think they know the “answer” yet have no real life experience
2) Are looking to keep their pensions until such time as they can use their mass knowledge of the mazes to get $1M dollar salaries like that sleaze bag Senator from Connecticut.
3) Really want a technocratic driven society/government where those, that got the right job at the right time can tell 350 million people that live from Jackson Hole to Brooklyn Heights what is good for them
4) Really don’t believe in the contents of the Declaration of Independence and think that the common folk are too stupid and undeserving of the Bill of Rights.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Sorry sent too soon..

Sorry The “fix” will come when one internet providers starts to provide “free streaming” (doesn’t count against the cap) for Democratic or Republican media.

Then the stupid senators from Tenn and Texas will be force to learn what they should have learned while partying though in college about what a Natural Monopoly is really about. Until then, the members of Congress will continue to accept contributions (aka bribes) from Utilities that they are either too stupid or corrupt to understand the greater social implication of incompetence and / or greed.

OldGeezer (profile) says:

And they wonder why people pirate

Download a 1080p video & your cable could go clear down while you continue watching. You really want to watch a shitty 480p & even it might buffer on you? 720 hogs too much bandwidth? What decade are you from? You can’t buy a TV any more that is not 4K, but what ISP is going to let you stream that? Cox is probably one of the better providers. I get the speed they promised MOST of the time. If I get the occasional drops it will buffer on any resolution.

Anonymous Coward says:

False Premise

I’ve managed systems and networks, and managing for congestion doesn’t mean that you only change someone’s service level when there actually is congestion.

There’s a balance between managing capacity and providing consistent service. Under the premise of this article, my performance should be reflected by the *current* congestion. However, in the real world, if today I can watch a 1080 (or 4K) video, but tomorrow it downgrades to 480, I’m going to complain.

People want consistent service levels, and companies managing networks have to balance available capacity at peak times with the overall service level given to their customers.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: False Premise

People want consistent service levels, and companies managing networks have to balance available capacity at peak times with the overall service level given to their customers.

No-one’s arguing against actual network management to deal with congestion and/or prevent it, rather the point is that the claims of caps and throttling are meant to deal with that, as opposed to blatant cash-grabs tends to be rather light on evidence to support the claim.

"There’s no evidence that any of these policies are only happening during network overload. They’re throttling video traffic even when the network doesn’t need to. It happens 24/7, and in every region where we have tests."

If the network is facing congestion 24/7, such that they need to throttle video traffic to avoid it getting even worse that would seem to be a pretty good indicator that they’ve heavily over-sold their network, placing the problem on their end rather than the customers.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re: False Premise

I’m not sure how that addresses the point the AC was trying to make.

The AC’s point, as I read it, seemed to be that if you’re going to throttle for anti-congestion purposes at all, you should do it 24/7, even when congestion is not actually occurring – because otherwise the customer’s experience will be inconsistent, and the customer will find the unpredictability itself ("what video quality can I get right now? No way to tell except to try!") irritating.

Under that logic, the overall customer experience is better if the customer is always throttled down to the best quality that can be reliably provided, rather than unpredictably sometimes getting high quality and sometimes getting low quality with no way to be sure which will happen when.

There’s a certain amount of logic to that argument, but I do think the question it leaves unaddressed – of whether the customer aggravation from the inconsistency would really outweigh the customer aggravation from being unable to get the higher qualities at all – is a major one, and worth addressing.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: 'If a tree falls in a forest' for a modern age

The problem with that argument, or at least one of them, is that if that is the case you shouldn’t be able to pay to bypass that throttling, as it’s using the same amount of data either way, no matter how much you pay.

And yet…

Caps face a similar problem, where it’s fine and dandy until you use up a certain amount, and only then is your connection penalized(whether speed or financially), even if you’re in a situation where it’s not likely to cause any real problems with the network(think heavy user but one that does the majority of their work at night when everyone is sleeping). In that situation exactly what real problem is being addressed by throttling them and/or hitting them with extra fines?

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