Sprint Throttled Skype Without Telling Anyone... And Nobody Seems To Care Much

from the slippery-slope dept

Last month we pointed to research out of Northeastern University that showed U.S. wireless video performance was thoroughly mediocre thanks in large part to arbitrary carrier throttling. The study, spearheaded by researcher David Choffnes, found that this carrier throttling usually had absolutely nothing to do with congestion. Instead, much of it was driven by carriers trying to impose arbitrary limits on your connection, then charge you more money to avoid it. For example, Verizon now throttles all video on its "unlimited" wireless data connections to 480p (around 1.5 Mbps), unless you pay Verizon for a more expensive plan.

Choffnes is tracking ISP network management by using crowdsourced data from his Wehe app. More recently Choffnes released an updated report that continues to show that carriers arbitrarily throttle video and select apps. But his report and data also found that Sprint (and its prepaid subsidiary Boost Mobile) routinely throttles Skype performance on its networks... without telling consumers about it. The throttling was discovered in 34 percent of 1,968 full tests run between January 18 and October 15 of this year, note the researchers:

"We found a significant number of instances of Sprint throttling our Skype tests. This is interesting because Skype’s telephony service can be construed as directly competing with the telephony service provided by Sprint...We asked Sprint to comment on our findings. Their reply was: "Sprint does not single out Skype or any individual content provider in this way." Our test results indicate otherwise, particularly for video content providers where we were able to confirm targeted throttling of Wehe tests."

On its surface, Sprint throttling Skype a third of a the time isn't the end of the world. But as is often the case with net neutrality, it's the precedent that matters. Sprint has already tinkered with throttling video, music, and games unless users were willing to pay more money, something nobody in the Obama administration so much as blinked at -- even with net neutrality rules intact.

Now, post-repeal, Sprint is throttling a service that could be directly construed as competing with Sprint's own offerings, something Choffnes told me should be raising alarm bells for anybody interested in keeping the internet competitive and relatively neutral:

"In a neutral network, all of these services can compete on a level playing field to offer a product that attracts the most users,” he said. “When an Internet provider targets a service for throttling, the playing field can tilt in favor of one service over another."

“This is particularly problematic if the Internet provider's service is favored, because they can use this advantage to drive users away from competing products and to ones belong to the Internet provider,” Choffnes added. “And because the competition is limited by the Internet service they are given, in some cases there may nothing they can do to regain equal footing."

Sprint, for its part, justly flatly denied to me and other reporters that this was even happening, though Choffnes stands by his data. Here's the point where an objective regulator would come in, investigate the issue, and then punish companies if necessary. Of course in the Ajit Pai era that's simply not going to happen. Under the FCC's 2015 rules, ISPs had to be transparent about what they were doing so users knew what kind of connection they were buying. With those rules now dead, the FCC has effectively made transparency a largely voluntary affair that ISPs can ignore at their leisure.

That's where Choffnes comes in. He's trying to at least hold ISPs accountable by using crowdsourced data to clarify what ISPs are up to. But with the news of Sprint throttling Skype coming and going without a single comment from anybody in a position to actually do anything about it, it's not clear if knowing alone is going to be enough.

Again, Sprint throttling Skype for a third of its users certainly isn't the end of the world. But it remains a precedent you should be worried about. ISPs are desperately trying to be on their best behavior right now ahead of next February's net neutrality lawsuits against the FCC. They don't want to add any fuel to the fire (well, aside from that Verizon throttling California firefighters for no reason thing). But should the FCC and ISPs win their court battle, you're going to see a lot more "creative" efforts to impose costly new barriers to access, and less and less transparency with the end user about what's happening.


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Nov 2018 @ 6:57am

    Again, Sprint throttling Skype for a third of its users certainly isn't the end of the world.

    Is that for a third of its users, or is that for a third of the uses of Skype? The latter has a much bigger impact, by making Skype unreliable for everyone, making it a poor choice for a primary phone service.

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

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 15 Nov 2018 @ 7:30am

      Re:

      "The latter has a much bigger impact, by making Skype unreliable for everyone, making it a poor choice for a primary phone service."

      In my experience, Microsoft have been doing their best to make that happen since the day they bought it.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 15 Nov 2018 @ 7:51am

        Re: Re:

        >In my experience, Microsoft have been doing their best to make that happen since the day they bought it.

        Yup. My company stopped using Skype entirely because of how unreliable it is.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 15 Nov 2018 @ 8:59am

        Re: Re:

        In my experience it didn't start with Microsoft. Skype was unreliable for video and audio long before Microsoft came into the picture because of the way it's communications protocol was designed.

        Some of that can be laid at the feet of traditionally bad ISPs. One particular friend of mine had bad service through Skype but it was because the ISP itself had poorly managed infrastructure. Nothing was reliable for them.

        Some of it is squarely the way the Skype protocol was designed to work. Supernodes, nodes, and clients. It depended on who had certain network ports open to decentralize the communications and that resulted in quality problems.

        Microsoft merely inherited the fundamental design and other technological debts created by the original Skype design.

        As for Sprint throttling Skype... that's more amusing. Yes, let's use a much less reliable way of talking to someone than what the damned network was built to handle! THAT'S SMART! Idiots. Make a damned phone call. Skype isn't designed to handle intermittent connectivity like what's prevalent with mobile networks. That requires a robust protocol with built in redundancy and error correction designed for radio data communications. Everything Skype isn't.

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

        • icon
          PaulT (profile), 15 Nov 2018 @ 11:45pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          "Microsoft merely inherited the fundamental design and other technological debts created by the original Skype design."

          Then, what's your excuse for the increasingly poor reliability and performance AFTER they've undertaken major redesigns of both the interface and the underlying tech since they bought it? They deprecated the old protocol in 2014, and it's definitely less reliable now than it was in its heyday.

          "Make a damned phone call."

          So... you have no idea how or why the majority of people used it in the first place. Cool.

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

  • identicon
    stine, 15 Nov 2018 @ 7:12am

    wehe

    Every time I've run the app, on my Sprint phone, the only app that I've seen be throttled is YouTube, and it hasn't been throttled every time.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 15 Nov 2018 @ 7:20am

      Re: wehe

      >Every time I've run the app, on my Sprint phone, the only app that I've seen be throttled is YouTube, and it hasn't been throttled every time.

      Another damn lying university researcher. Like that made-up global warming bullshit. Ajit Pai is the real source of truth!

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Nov 2018 @ 7:15am

    Limiting "Unlimited" Connections.

    Where's the FTC? Yeah, that's what I thought. And the Trump administration claims the FTC will do a fine job ensuring network neutrality.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Nov 2018 @ 8:47am

    Whaaa

    People still use Skype? I thought the terrible voice quality, and the gov backdoors had killed that service.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Nov 2018 @ 9:37am

    People still use Skype?

    *record scratch*

    More importantly, people still use Sprint?

    Affecting "one third" of the user base means 3 people are affected.

    Move along. Nothing to see here.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Nov 2018 @ 3:07pm

    You can bypass Sprint's throttling of video by using a VPN or proxy to get around that. Using a VPN to bypass throttling is does not break any laws in the United States.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Nov 2018 @ 5:33am

    So....

    Don't use Sprint then. The most important thing for the Fed Gov to protect is competition among service providers so that we have choices.

    Just because you don't like what Sprint is doing doesn't mean it's wrong. The scenario where people who aren't "on the hook" for the fiduciary performance of the company is a much worse situation than their choices pissing people off. Especially when those people (i.e., our gov) have zero idea how business works.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 16 Nov 2018 @ 7:40am

      Re: So....

      When a communications providers starts to control who you can communicate with, or what applications you can use, they are controlling what you can do beyond any reasonable management of network capacity and congestion. That will rapidly become a problem for both individuals, and businesses that rely on use of the Internet.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 16 Nov 2018 @ 8:25am

        Re: Re: So....

        Competition will level those issues out because people who don't want those controls will opt for other service providers.

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

        • icon
          PaulT (profile), 16 Nov 2018 @ 8:48am

          Re: Re: Re: So....

          ...and when there's no real competition?

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

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 16 Nov 2018 @ 9:05am

          Re: Re: Re: So....

          Competition will level those issues out because people who don't want those controls will opt for other service providers.

          Only if people are aware of exactly what each service provider is doing. Information flow is a very significant problem in the field of economics, claiming "competition exists" is necessary, but not sufficient, to support your claim.

          As it is, we have a company which explicitly claims no throttling is occurring, and a small group of researchers claiming that throttling is occurring. Multiple problems have now appeared to limit information flow and make your conclusion invalid.

          No amount of examination of the contract the consumer has with Sprint, or questioning of Sprint, allows the consumer to discover that they are being throttled. This is a major hurdle in economic theory, if you cannot examine the product itself to determine it's value relative to other products, searching costs begin increasing exponentially (geometrically? can't remember the theory exactly). Further, this study is in no way unique. There are dozens of similar studies, using varying methodologies, and which reach many different conclusions. To obtain all the information about the service, the customer must spend significant amounts of time learning about both technical and statistical methods used by the studies AND conclude that those studies are more authoritative than Sprint itself.

          And as I'm sure you're aware, basic economics says that when searching costs are high, no amount of firms in the market is sufficient to make that market competitive.

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

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 17 Nov 2018 @ 6:46am

          Re: Re: Re: So....

          And when as a cartel, those providers divide up the services so that you need to use all of them to use all of the Internet, you will realize the limitations of competition when a cartel can form.

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


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Special Affiliate Offer

Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.