Wireless Carriers Must Give More Details About Slowdowns, Watchdog Says

Major wireless carriers are violating a Net neutrality principle by failing to fully explain their throttling policies to users, the group Public Knowledge alleged on Wednesday.

The advocacy group sent letters to AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, demanding that they publish details about the circumstances under which they slow down wireless users. The letters mark the first step toward filing a formal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, Public Knowledge said on Wednesday.

The watchdog says the companies are violating their obligation to provide users with transparency into network management practices -- which is the only portion of the FCC's 2010 Net neutrality rules that wasn't struck down earlier this year by an appellate court.

AT&T, Verizon and Sprint all say they potentially could throttle some users when the network is congested. AT&T and Verizon only throttle users who are still on “unlimited” data plans -- meaning that they pay a flat rate for all the data they wish to consume.

Sprint says it might slow down anyone who uses more data than 95% of subscribers.

AT&T reserves the right to slow down users on unlimited plans who have consumed either 3GB or 5GB of data in a month, depending on their phones. The company says that people with 3G and 4G phones can face slowdowns after consuming 3GB of data, while people who have 4G-LTE phones could face throttling once they have used 5GB of data.

Verizon says it might slow down unlimited users who consume more data than 95% of its subscribers.

Public Knowledge argues that none of those policies offer users clarity about when they are at risk of slowdowns. “Without access to network information, it is impossible for subscribers to translate 'top 5%' into an actual data amount on their own,” Public Knowledge says.

The advocacy group also is urging the carriers to offer details about congestion on their networks. “As with the 5% threshold, it is impossible for subscribers to know where those congested parts of the network might be. That is why we are calling on AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon to publish real time information about network congestion events that would trigger throttling for eligible subscribers in order to comply with the rule,” Public Knowledge says.

Public Knowledge also takes issue with T-Mobile's decision regarding how they communicate network speeds to consumers. T-Mobile says it throttles pay-per-byte subscribers after they have exceeded their allotted usage. The company also offers a “speed test,” which gives people information about the speed of their connections.

But when throttled users ask T-Mobile to perform a speed test, the company responds by informing them of the speed that non-throttled users are experiencing, according to Fierce Wireless.

Public Knowledge is urging T-Mobile to change this practice. “While it may be academically interesting for subscribers to learn what their unthrottled connection speed might be, it is practically useful for them to be able to determine their actual, real world, connection speed,” the organization says.

“If T-Mobile is concerned that these slow speeds will hurt customer retention, the more appropriate response would be to increase data caps, increase throttled networks speeds, or both.”

 

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