FCC Gives T-Mobile A Talking To For Exempting Speedtests From Caps, Preventing Users From Seeing They'd Been Throttled

from the just-deliver-our-bits-and-get-out-of-the-way dept

While T-Mobile has been doing a lot of consumer friendly things lately, we've noted repeatedly that many of these behaviors are somewhat superficial, despite oodles of press adoration for the company's admittedly highly entertaining CEO John Legere. Under the surface, some of what T-Mobile is up to isn't that different from the companies T-Mobile ridicules (AT&T, Verizon). Not only has the company not really been eager to compete on price, it has shown repeatedly that it doesn't think much of net neutrality or Title II reclassification, despite being a self-professed consumer BFF.

In addition to not understanding (or not caring) how the company's Music Freedom plan sets a horrible precedent, T-Mobile found itself under fire earlier this year for its decision to exempt speedtests from the company's arbitrary usage caps. Why? Unlike the overage fees charged by AT&T and Verizon, T-Mobile throttles users to 64 or 128 kbps after users reach their monthly allotments. Groups like Public Knowledge complained back in July that by exempting speedtests from T-Mobile caps, throttled customers weren't able to tell that they were throttled:
"By exempting speed tests from the throttling, T-Mobile is effectively preventing consumers from learning exactly how slow their throttled connections are. Under the new policy, T-Mobile customers who exceed their data caps will not be able to gauge the actual speeds available to them for the vast majority of their daily usage."
T-Mobile responded by claiming that the carrier was only trying to help consumers by making speedtests (which don't use much data to begin with) cap exempt. But that logic is a slippery slope and a cop out. If you're setting arbitrary caps and then exempting music services and speedtests, why not Techdirt podcasts? Why not TurboTax? Why not city municipal services? Government websites? Again, it sets a bad precedent for a wireless carrier to erect artificial, arbitrary barriers, then begin fiddling with what specific services can (or can't) more easily bypass these hurdles.

The FCC appears to have heard Public Knowledge's concerns, and this week announced (pdf) that the agency had worked with T-Mobile on an agreement requiring the carrier to clarify its throttling practices. According to the FCC, T-Mobile has sixty days to clarify throttling practices on its websites, provide access to speedtests that show a user's throttled state, and begin sending clear text messages to consumers alerting them when they've reached their monthly data allotments. Says the FCC:
"The FCC is committed to ensuring that broadband providers are transparent to consumers. I’m grateful T-Mobile has worked with the FCC to ensure that its customers are better informed about the speeds they are experiencing," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. “Consumers need this information to fully understand what they are getting with their broadband service."
Of course, ensuring companies are "transparent" is one thing, and protecting the integrity of a neutral network is something else entirely. The FCC has made it repeatedly clear they see efforts like T-Mobile's Music Freedom and AT&T's Sponsored Data as "pricing creativity" during the neutrality rulemaking process, which should concern anybody interested in a healthy Internet. Meanwhile, T-Mobile wants to be seen as the ultra-hip, fun cousin of the telecom scene, but it apparently hopes nobody will notice that many of its behaviors aren't all that different from its dodgy, drunk uncles, AT&T and Verizon. If T-Mobile really wants to be seen as truly consumer friendly? Just deliver our bits and get the hell out of the way.

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  • identicon
    Michael, 2 Dec 2014 @ 11:44am

    “Consumers need this information to fully understand what they are getting with their broadband service."

    Umm...if consumers need speed test data to fully understand what they are getting, how are they able to make an informed decision when they sign up for service?

    Sure, these tools should work, but isn't the first step to make the carrier TELL THE CUSTOMERS WHAT THEIR SPEEDS WILL BE THROTTLED TO BEFORE THEY SIGN UP?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Violynne (profile), 3 Dec 2014 @ 3:44am

      Re:

      T-Mobile does tell its customers how its plans work. We've been with the service for several years, and every time we upgrade our phones, they even remind us our plan is capped if we exceed 2GB/mo, which is based on the combined usage of both phones on the same "plan".

      This entire farce by the FCC is a waste of time. Public Knowledge seems to be chasing windmills on this one, because speed has nothing to do with data caps.

      What's next, Public Knowledge is going go chase after websites to demand them to display a message telling users how much data the page will consume?

      Good grief.

      Anyone who has used a phone that's been throttled will tell instantly they're being throttled and a speed test isn't going to help them in any regard, before or during the throttle.

      If Public Knowledge was more proactive in their "case", they should have demanded all mobile carriers give users a widget/app where they can easily monitor the data consumption, where speed isn't a factor.

      Thanks, PK, for absolutely nothing. Now, go find something better to do now that you've conquered this windmill.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Michael, 3 Dec 2014 @ 4:18am

        Re: Re:

        So you actually know what speeds you get throttled to when you reach your cap?

        Please let me know, it could impact my selection of a new carrier.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 4 Dec 2014 @ 3:58am

        Re: Re:

        "Under the new policy, T-Mobile customers who exceed their data caps will not be able to gauge the actual speeds available to them for the vast majority of their daily usage."

        If the vast majority of their usage is capped, maybe they need a new plan or need to use the phone less.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Michael, 2 Dec 2014 @ 11:52am

    T-Mobile responded by claiming that the carrier was only trying to help consumers by making speedtests (which don't use much data to begin with) cap exempt.

    Stanley Tools was only trying to help consumers by making their laser tape-measure completely ignore walls.

    WTF!?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Dec 2014 @ 12:08pm

    The more 'exceptions' to data caps they add, the more ridiculous and arbitrary it looks, and the less defensible it becomes.

    It makes it harder and harder to remember that they used to claim they needed those data caps to limit the network traffic because they just couldn't handle that much.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    David, 2 Dec 2014 @ 12:11pm

    There is an actual rationale here:

    If you're setting arbitrary caps and then exempting music services and speedtests, why not Techdirt podcasts? Why not TurboTax? Why not city municipal services? Government websites?

    Because the one thing where you need to specify a reasonable approximation of your available bandwidth is high-throughput streaming. Of course, video streams are most important in that regard, but music streaming is at least more expensive than speech streams.

    So yes: there is a rationale for letting speed tests give the numbers of the services that you are supposed to be using preferedly (presumably because they are proxied and thus reasonably cheap to provide in the vicinity of the "last city mile" or few hops away).

    So at least a checkbox (defaulting to off) in your web settings for "Treat speedtests like rate-unlimited services" would definitely make some sense for figuring out what you can reasonably ask for. Of course, it would be even nicer to have 3 checkboxes for

                                    Rate-limit
    Unlimited services
    Capped services
    Known Speedtests

    That way, you could check out the difference stuff makes even when not using a known speedtest and you could save your caps for just the big updates (or, say, three family movies) and pre-limit your rate until you need it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    rasz_pl, 2 Dec 2014 @ 12:16pm

    awww a talking

    whats next, a strong worded letter? US "regulatory bodies" are so cute.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Dec 2014 @ 1:44pm

    See, this is where I have to disagree with you, even though I vehemently disagree with the stance the US T-Mobile arm has here. The rationale is very simple: T-Mobile want you to know what your theoretical maximum is, so they exempt traffic to the speed-test sites so that their speeds are accurate.

    However, this violates the principle of Net Neutrality, for the simple reason of it being prioritised (through exepmtions).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 2 Dec 2014 @ 2:15pm

      Re:

      "T-Mobile want you to know what your theoretical maximum is, so they exempt traffic to the speed-test sites so that their speeds are accurate."

      In other words, T-Mobile is lying to you because they want to answer a question they wish you asked (What is my theoretical maximum speed?) instead of the question you actually asked (what is my current maximum speed?)

      It's BS. If what you want to know is what your theoretical maximum speed is, you're not going to run an operational test to find that out. You're going to ask the provider, and the provider will tell you. The entire point of operational tests is to characterize the current state of your link, not to try to divine some kind of theoretically possible value.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 3 Dec 2014 @ 1:11am

        Re: Re:

        But here's the thing: T-Mobile are up-front about the fact that they throttle the data, rather than charging stupid and extortionate overage fees.

        I don't disagree that it's wrong for T-Mobile to shape traffic in such a way, atypical tot he rest of the 'Net. I'm just pointing out that there's a logical reason (for them, anyway) for that to be the case.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          John Fenderson (profile), 3 Dec 2014 @ 8:25am

          Re: Re: Re:

          " I'm just pointing out that there's a logical reason (for them, anyway) for that to be the case."

          Yes, and that reason is to be deceptive. There is literally no other reason to intentionally set their system up to falsify speed test results in this way.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Dec 2014 @ 2:12pm

    I hate when telcos fake speed tests.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Dec 2014 @ 5:39pm

    Typical speed test has a short duration, ISPs plan accordingly.

    Your initial data rate after connection is held abnormally high for a period of time and then dropped to the typical rate thus making it appear as though you have a higher rate when you actually do.

    As a test, d/l a large file and watch the speed over time.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Dec 2014 @ 4:54am

    Familiar argument...

    You can't have your data throttled if you don't know your data is being throttled. Can you?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jason, 3 Dec 2014 @ 11:14am

    Real Reason

    The real reason that they don't throttle speed tests is so that they can say they are the fastest. If everyone is doing speed tests at 64k then it makes them look worse than they actually are. It benefits T-Mobile and not the customer to give unthrottled speed tests.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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