Senators Press Wireless Carriers On Streaming Video Throttling

from the ill-communication dept

Three U.S. Senators are pressuring wireless carriers for answers after recent studies showed they routinely throttle video services -- not to protect the network from congestion -- but to simply make an extra buck.

One of the core goals of net neutrality was to prevent ISPs from imposing arbitrary restrictions on the network just to harm competitors or boost revenues. Of course lax enforcement and now dismantled rules have made that hard to stop. As a result, ISPs like Comcast routinely impose completely arbitrary and unnecessary usage caps, then exempt their own content from those limits, but punishing users if they step outside the Comcast walled garden. Wireless carriers have similarly throttled music, games and videos, then begun charging users more money if they want those services to operate as the creators intended.

Even with net neutrality rules intact, the FCC didn't really do a good job understanding how these arbitrary restrictions (like usage caps and zero rating) could prove anti-competitive. And in the year or two since things have only gotten worse, with wireless carriers like Verizon throttling all video on its network unless you pay the company for an even more expensive plan. The perils of this should be obvious--especially for Americans who already pay some of the highest prices for mobile data in the developed world.

Historically, ISPs have tried to claim they only throttle video when it causes network congestion, with net neutrality generally allowing such network management. But recent studies out of Northeastern have shown that this throttling has nothing to do with managing network congestion, and everything to do with erecting artificial barriers consumers then have to pay more to overcome. David Choffnes, whose data for these studies is being collected via his WeHe app, also recently found that Sprint has been throttling Skype (a potential competitor to Sprint's own services).

Last week, Senators Edward Markey, Richard Blumenthal, and Ron Wyden sent joint letters to AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile, demanding answers as to why they throttle, which services they throttle, and whether they clearly inform users of the throttling (in Sprint's Skype instance, they didn't).

"We write to express our concern that mobile carriers may be inappropriately throttling and prioritizing internet traffic from common mobile apps without the knowledge of their customers. All online traffic should be treated equally, and internet service providers should not discriminate against particular content or applications for competitive advantage purposes or otherwise."

So far the FCC and major carriers haven't wanted to much talk about Choffnes or Northeastern's findings. Choffnes recently informed me in an interview that his goal is to bring some crowd-sourced transparency to network performance in the wake of the repeal of net neutrality. He was quick to highlight the inherent problem with letting ISPs non-transparently hamstring companies they're actively trying to compete with (Netflix vs. AT&T, for example):

"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."

While the major carriers have until December 6 to answer, it's unlikely carriers will face much in the way of repercussions during FCC boss Ajit Pai's watch. Pai was not only happy to kill net neutrality and gut FCC authority at telecom lobbyist request, the net neutrality repeal replaced hard rules on transparency with entirely voluntary guidelines that ISPs can ignore at their leisure with absolutely no meaningful repercussions.

Keep in mind, that ISPs are currently trying their best to behave ahead of next February's court showdown over net neutrality (which could restore the 2015 rules). Should they win that fight, the kind of nickel-and-diming they engage in will progressively be less and less subtle.


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