Verizon Throttles Netflix Subscribers In 'Test' It Doesn't Inform Customers About

from the just-the-beginning dept

So for years Verizon Wireless refused to compete on price, insisting that the company's network was just so incredible, it didn't have to. Then came increased competition from T-Mobile, which forced the company to not only start competing a little more seriously on price, but to bring back unlimited data plans Verizon had spent years telling customers they didn't need. And while Wall Street cries about this rise in competition hurting earnings at least once a week, it has generally been a good thing for consumers.

But there's two things waiting just over the horizon that could ruin everybody's good time. One is a looming merger between Sprint and T-Mobile, which would significantly reduce competition in the wireless sector, eliminating much of the pressure on mobile providers to compete. The other is the impending death of net neutrality protections at the FCC, which currently keep these carriers from abusing this lack of competition to drive up costs and hamper content competitors.

But another, important part of net neutrality rules is the requirement that carriers are clear about just what kind of connection you're buying. Last week, Verizon apparently got a running start in being less transparent when it decided to begin throttling its wireless customers without telling anybody. Users at Reddit began noticing that when they streamed Netflix content or accessed Netflix's speedtest, their connections were magically limited to 10 Mbps. When they used other companies' speedtests or used a VPN to mask their traffic, they received the full speed of their mobile connections.

To be clear, being restricted to 10 Mbps isn't that big of a deal in and of itself. 10 Mbps is more than enough to stream video at 1080p60 and 1440p30, though users say they're running into buffering at 1440p60 or 4K (not that most users care about 4K content on mobile devices anyway). But it was the fact that Verizon couldn't be bothered to tell anybody this was happening that's raising a few eyebrows. And when pressed, Verizon was only willing to give a rather vague answer about how they were simply conducting "tests" that didn't hurt anybody:

"We've been doing network testing over the past few days to optimize the performance of video applications on our network. The testing should be completed shortly. The customer video experience was not affected."

So while Verizon's throttling shouldn't be construed as the end of the world, you'd probably understand why Verizon, one of the most vocal opponents of net neutrality, would raise a few eyebrows by conducting tests like this without telling anybody. Consumer groups like Public Knowledge were quick to point out that one of the benefits of net neutrality rules is the assurance it gives customers that it can trust what carriers are saying:

"The guidelines distinguishing ‘throttling’ from ‘reasonable network management’ developed as part of the FCC’s investigation into T-Mobile’s Binge On service provided precisely this certainty. Unfortunately, Chairman Pai’s decision to rescind the report and to reopen the net neutrality proceeding have created massive uncertainty and suspicion.

“Before, Verizon could simply point to the FCC guidelines to reassure their customers. Today, we must look to Chairman Pai to tell us whether subscribers have anything more to rely on than Verizon’s promises. Rather than undermining consumer confidence and creating needless confusion, Chairman Pai should end his misguided efforts to roll back the FCC’s net neutrality rules any further."

As the net neutrality protections (and the FCC's authority overall) are slowly but surely gutted, this uncertainty is only going to grow. Carriers will begin pushing to see just what kind of behavior Ajit Pai's FCC will let them get away with, and given Pai is repeatedly on record believing neither net neutrality nor a lack of competition are real problems, there's not going to be much, if any, regulatory pressure to behave. Combine that with a major reduction in competition from a looming wave of Trump-approved mergers and acquisitions, and there's certain to be less organic market or regulatory pressure keeping these mono/duopolies in line.

Filed Under: fcc, net neutrality, tests, throttling
Companies: netflix, verizon

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  1. icon
    PaulT (profile), 4 Aug 2017 @ 12:24am


    "why is it that individual users don't need to be limited in the total amount of data they use?"

    Because the way it works is not that there's a limited pool to use and then it's gone. Caps are meant to discourage extremely heavy usage, because the ISP will have to pay for that total bandwidth (which is usually considered within their fee structure anyway). But, there's no real reason why someone suddenly needs to be cut off or throttled to a crawl when they pass a certain cap.

    As with many things on this subject, it's an ISP business model issue, not a technical one.

    "What exactly is different in our modern internet from the old days when I was told (although we had broadband) a lot of people using the internet at once would make it slower?"

    You're describing contention ratio, which is particularly common with DSL connections. That is, the total speed available on a particular connection may be shared between a number of users in your local area. So, say there's a line that connects to 10 houses and can support 10Mbps. One user on that line might be able to use all 10Mbps to themselves. When there's 10 users, they can only access 1Mbps each, as that takes the line to a total of 10Mbps for everybody.

    What actually happens on the business side of things is that the company will probably cap you at 3Mbps and sell that to all 10 people on the line as getting "up to 3Mbps", then tell you that you can get that speed but it may go down during busy times. But they'll still charge you for 3Mbps, not 1, even if the number of users means you'll never get the full 3.

    This isn't particularly controversial in and of itself. The problem here is that Verizon are deciding to do this only in regard to certain services. So, with other uses of the bandwidth you'd get the full speed promised, but using Netflix you'd suddenly be throttled. This is particularly concerning in the face of the whole net neutrality debate, as Verizon will be doing this to competing video services such as Netflix and YouTube, but not to their own video services - giving them an unfair advantage.

    I hope that makes sense.

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