Wireless

by Karl Bode


Filed Under:
fcc, ftc, lte, throttling, title ii, unlimited

Companies:
at&t



After FTC, FCC Pressure, AT&T Backs Off Arbitrary Throttling Of 'Unlimited' LTE Users

from the you-may-need-a-dictionary dept

Back when AT&T stopped offering unlimited wireless data, it grandfathered many of the unlimited users it had at the time. Unfortunately for those users, AT&T immediately started waging a quiet war on these customers as part of a concerted effort to drive them like cattle to more expensive plans. That included at one point blocking Facetime from working at all unless users switched to metered plans (but net neutrality is a "solution in search of a problem," am I right?) and throttling these "unlimited" LTE users after they'd consumed as little as three gigabytes of data.

Then, just about a year ago, the FCC (like it has on a number of consumer telecom issues like telco accounting fraud or municipal broadband) miraculously awoke from a deep, fifteen-year slumber and decided to do something about this kind of behavior. FCC boss Tom Wheeler started warning telcos that they can't use congestion as a bogeyman to justify cash grabs, and that network management should be used to actually manage network congestion -- not as a weapon to herd users to more expensive options. The FTC also filed suit against AT&T for false advertising over its "unlimited" claims.

While AT&T tried to unsuccessfully tap dance around the lawsuit (ironically claiming it was protected by Title II classification), this regulatory pressure appears to have worked. AT&T this week updated the company's policy for grandfathered unlimited data customers suggesting the company has modified its network management practices. Back in March, the company's policy looked like this:
"As a result of the AT&T network management process, customers on a 3G or 4G smartphone with an unlimited data plan who have exceeded 3 gigabytes of data in a billing period may experience reduced speeds when using data services at times and in areas that are experiencing network congestion. Customers on a 4G LTE smartphone will experience reduced speeds once their usage in a billing cycle exceeds 5 gigabytes of data. All such customers can still use unlimited data without incurring overage charges, and their speeds will be restored with the start of the next billing cycle."
As of this week, the policy now looks like this:
"As a result of AT&T’s network management process, customers on a 3G or 4G smartphone or on a 4G LTE smartphone with an unlimited data plan who have exceeded 3 gigabytes (3G/4G) or 5 gigabytes (4G LTE) of data in a billing period may experience reduced speeds when using data services at times and in areas that are experiencing network congestion. All such customers can still use unlimited data without incurring overage charges, and their speeds will be restored with the start of the next billing cycle."
In other words, gone are the references to throttling unlimited LTE users just because they hit a totally arbitrary threshold, and the company is now using network management to manage the damn network, not to make an extra buck. AT&T will of course find other, clever ways to annoy these users until they switch to more expensive plans, but it's at least good to see that the network congestion bogeyman (fear the exaflood!) isn't quite as effective as it used to be when it comes to justifying high rates, misleading consumers or conning regulators.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 May 2015 @ 2:17pm

    Hmm... The new phrasing doesn't exactly fill me with good feelings.....

    The mention of speed being "restored with the start of the next billing cycle." certainly implies to me that the speed could be restored earlier than that. What I would consider a far more appropriate policy description would be.

    "As a result of AT&T’s network management process, customers may experience reduced speeds when using data services at times and in areas that are experiencing network congestion. Customer speeds will be restored when network congestion is alleviated."

    Notice that there is no mention of any specific data plan. Simply a factual statement that if there's network congestion, then the speed to individual customers may be reduced and such reduction will be eliminated when the congestion no longer affects the area. But as it is currently written, it seems to me that there's entirely too high of a probability that a switch will be thrown causing the speed to a customer to be reduced and that switch will be reset at the beginning of the next billing period when it should be that the switch is only thrown when congestion is an issue and the switch is reset as soon as congestion is no longer an issue.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward, 7 May 2015 @ 2:24pm

      Re:

      Well, one certainly has to know that their networks are only un-congested at the beginning of a billing cycle and that as a billing cycle progresses the network becomes more and more congested until magically they become un-congested again at the start of a new billing cycle. How can anyone not see that?

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

    • icon
      Karl Bode (profile), 8 May 2015 @ 8:55am

      Re:

      Yes it's now a slippery slope too where ISPs can consistently claim "congestion" and fiddle with the data to prove this point, so we've opened up a real pandora's box that requires consistent regulatory policing....

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

  • identicon
    avideogameplayer, 7 May 2015 @ 2:23pm

    Who are you and what have you done to the lobbyist run FCC?

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

  • identicon
    -- Logan --, 7 May 2015 @ 2:29pm

    Um, I Read This Differently

    I don't see any difference between the two policies you posted. They both say 4G LTE accounts will be throttled after 5 GB of data. Am I missing something?

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

    • icon
      ysth (profile), 7 May 2015 @ 2:39pm

      Re: Um, I Read This Differently

      Yes. One limits the throttling to when they would actually be allowed to do it (for network management purposes).

      But I do think the article is being naive in assuming this change of wording actually reflects a change in practice.

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

      • icon
        Karl Bode (profile), 8 May 2015 @ 8:57am

        Re: Re: Um, I Read This Differently

        After fifteen years writing about and being one of the few truly skeptical telecom beat reporters, I've been called a lot of things before, but never "naive," that's a new one, thanks.

        No, while I think it's important AT&T is now only using throttling to manage congestion, I'm well aware of the new slippery slope of bullshit it can now employ to try and pretend its network is endlessly congested. Using congestion to defend anti-competitive behavior has been a thirty-year evolving practice, and it's certainly not ending here.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 May 2015 @ 3:51pm

    but surely this is still a piss take, isn't it?

    customers 'who have exceeded 3 gigabytes (3G/4G) or 5 gigabytes (4G LTE) of data in a billing period may experience reduced speeds when using data services at times and in areas that are experiencing network congestion. but everything goes back to normal when the new billing cycle starts.

    so, even if you have gone over a certain amount of data, when on an unlimited plan, it's the amount of data used that is the issue because as soon as a new bill starts, there isn't any issues at all!

    they may have altered the text a bit, but they are still using the amount of data used as an excuse to throttle customers. why should there be any throttling at all if you're on an unlimited plan? that's the whole idea of being on one, isn't it?

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

  • identicon
    Zonker, 7 May 2015 @ 4:38pm

    So basically what AT&T is saying is that only unlimited plan customers who exceed their data thresholds may experience reduced speeds due to network congestion, but limited plan customers who pay overage fees won't? How is this any different than what AT&T was doing that got them into trouble in the first place?

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

  • icon
    JoeCool (profile), 7 May 2015 @ 8:53pm

    Unlimited? Hardly!

    The FCC needs to crack down on any usage of "unlimited" that is not TRULY unlimited. Every provider now says unlimited when talking about packages that throttle after a certain amount of data. For example - MetroPCS has been running ads non-stop lately for $30 per month "unlimited" data, text, and talk. However, when you check into it, "unlimited" means 1GB and then being throttled to 40 kbps for the rest of the month. Even worst, their terms say that if you "regularly" exceed the limit, they can arbitrarily move you to a higher priced data plan without your consent, or terminate your contract if you complain about being billed more. That is not in any way, shape, or form an "unlimited" plan.

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

  • identicon
    Andrew D. Todd, 8 May 2015 @ 2:45am

    Private Enterprise Simply Doesn't Fit With Fractal-Shaped Telecommunications Economics.

    Well, I think what we keep coming back to is that economics of telecommunications are fundamentally fractal-shaped. With good management, congestion is rarely an issue, but reach to customers in remote places is the dominant issue.

    In the case of cellphone service, in any location where congestion is reasonably foreseeable, the telephone company can install one or more "nano-cells." A "nano-cell" is substantially the same kind of machine as an inexpensive Wi-Fi router, albeit using different protocols and assigned frequencies in approximately the same range. In fact, the newer kinds of cellphones are being designed to use Wi-Fi when available. Potential congestion points can be easily identified by their architectural improvements, eg. food courts in shopping centers. A Wi-Fi or "nano-cell" installation is trivial compared to the equipment and fixtures necessary to serve food and keep the government health inspector happy.

    The exemplary case of legitimately expensive telecommunications service is service aboard an airliner flying over the Aleutian Islands, en route from San Francisco to Tokyo. More mundane are the cases of people in outer suburbia trying to use mobile wireless for houses, because the telephone and cable companies will not run landlines out to them, or set up line-of-sight wireless systems.

    What is comparatively expensive is increasing the number of people living in rural mobile homes who can call 911 at need, or increasing the number of schoolchildren, likewise in rural mobile homes, who can do their computerized homework at home, in short, providing what the telephone company calls "lifeline service." This represents a fundamental mismatch with the idea of making money by selling extra-value services. The over-riding issue is that a private company is not allowed to assess customers a percentage of their income, or a percentage of the value of their property. The city, or the county, or the water district is allowed to make such assessments, subject to a plebiscite, and finds little difficulty in raising enough money to keep the road, water, and sewer systems in adequately good repair. In certain parts of the country, the same principle is applied to electricity.

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

  • icon
    BernardoVerda (profile), 8 May 2015 @ 6:05pm

    Isn't this still throttling?

    Under this "new" scheme, the return to normal speed is dependent on the calendar, rather than the actual, current degree of congestion.

    Sounds like throttling to me.

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


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