Commentary

Verizon, Wheeler At Odds Over Throttling Plans

Verizon's recent announcement that it will start throttling some smartphone users seems to have brought new scrutiny to the wireless industry.

Last month, Verizon unveiled a new network management plan that involves deliberately slowing down some of the company's 4G LTE users who are still on unlimited data plans.

Even though the company no longer offers an unlimited-data option to new subscribers, it has allowed long-time users to retain their unlimited plans. Now, however, Verizon is qualifying its definition of “unlimited.” Specifically, the company says that it will manage congestion on the network by slowing down unlimited subscribers who consume more data than 95% of all users.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler isn't too happy about that plan. “I know of no past Commission statement that would treat as 'reasonable network management' a decision to slow traffic to a user who has paid, after all, for 'unlimited' service,” he wrote to Verizon last month.

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The wireless company replied that its practices were in line with those of other carriers.

Verizon also argues that it makes sense to throttle the heaviest data users on unlimited plans: “While this narrow practice will only be applied to customers on plans that do not limit the amount of data they can use in a month without incurring added data charges ... that reflects the fact that a small percentage of the customers on these plans use disproportionately large amounts of data, and, unlike subscribers on usage-based plans, they have no incentive not to do so during times of unusually high demand,” the company wrote./p>

Wheeler apparently doesn't think that response addresses his concerns. "'All the kids do it' is something that never worked with me when I was growing up, and it didn't work for my kids," Wheeler said, according to the Washington Post. "We have to be careful about attempts to reframe the issue."

Wheeler also reportedly said that the FCC has asked other carriers about their network management practices. “My concern in this instance -- and it's not just with Verizon, by the way, we've written to all the carriers -- is that it (network management) is moving from a technology and engineering issue to the business issues,” he said, according to Reuters.

Meanwhile, the advocacy group Public Knowledge has taken the first steps toward filing an FCC complaint against the carriers. That organization says that the carriers are violating a rule passed in 2010 that requires Internet service providers to disclose their network management practices.

Public Knowledge says that merely telling people that they might be throttled if they're in the top 5% of data users isn't all that informative, given that people have no way to know whether they're in that category. “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.

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