FCC Fines T-Mobile For Abusing The Definition Of 'Unlimited' Data
from the abusing-the-dictionary dept
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.