And the great telecom throttling wars of 2017 have begun. Back in July, Verizon customers noticed that the quality of video streams was being manipulated. Verizon insisted that it was just running a test. Then the company got trounced by T-Mobile (which already throttles video on mobile) in an overall speed test, and now, all bets are off. Verizon will officially begin limiting the quality of video on its unlimited plans on August 23rd.
Verizon, along with AT&T, had abandoned unlimited mobile data plans until T-Mobile came along and introduced its own unlimited service that began to eat up market share. Feeling the competition hot on its heels, Verizon jumped back into the unlimited game this year. But a report from the research company Open Signal earlier this month showed that T-Mobile had pulled ahead in the speed wars and was averaging 17.5 Mbps on average 4G download speeds compared to Verizon’s 14.9 Mbps. The solution? Downgrade the service.
Verizon is making some adjustments to its unlimited plans for new and current customers that inch us closer to the world in which buying a mobile subscription will feel as complicated as buying health insurance. Here’s how it breaks down:
- Verizon’s single-line unlimited mobile plan will start at $75/month on the first tier and $20/month extra to add a tablet.
- The first tier plan will only allow 480p streaming on phones, 720p on tablets.
- The second tier “Beyond Unlimited” plan offers a single-line unlimited mobile plan that costs $85/month and $20/month extra to add a tablet.
- The plan will only allow 720p streaming on phones, 1080p on tablets.
- For Verizon customers who are already on an unlimited plan, the data caps will be set at 720p on phones and 1080p on tablets.
Get all that? Simply put, video quality will be reduced for new customers on unlimited plans to what Verizon cheerfully refers to as “DVD-quality.” That’s not the end of the world. The company claims that “more than 96 percent of customers have not used 4K video,” according to Ars Technica. Do you really need eye-popping video on a mobile device? Would it even pop your eyes? The answer is subjective, but this is part of a larger problem that net neutrality advocates have warned could be the beginning of the end for the open web.
T-Mobile has throttled video on its unlimited mobile plan from the very beginning and Verizon is quick to point that out. “They’ve been doing this for a long time, so either no one’s noticed or it’s generally been accepted as OK,” a Verizon spokesperson told Gizmodo earlier this month. With regard to current net neutrality rules, the debate on whether it truly is “OK” or not revolves around the following section of the Open Internet Order:
No Throttling [47 C.F.R. ß 8.7]
A person engaged in the provision of broadband Internet access service, insofar as such person is so engaged, shall not impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of Internet content, application, or service, or use of a non-harmful device, subject to reasonable network management.
One could argue that throttling video qualifies as degrading “lawful Internet traffic on the basis of Internet content.” The counterargument says that degrading video across the board doesn’t count as a discriminatory practice. Additionally, telecoms are arguing that they can make quality adjustments based on “reasonable network management.” In this case, the network needs to get shittier because Verizon’s competitor has fewer customers and is less congested.
FCC chairman Ajit Pai wants to do away with the current net neutrality rules, in part because he says that an open internet in which all content is treated equally will be preserved by competition. “We know from two decades of experience that utility-style regulation is not necessary to achieving that goal,” he said in February. But this example shows that if you really are committed to equal treatment of content, we need stronger regulations that can’t be interpreted in a way that makes competition a race to the bottom.
With the system we have, networks will continue to adjust here, tweak there, and build more and more confusing tiers of service. With the system we’re likely to have when Ajit Pai finishes dismantling the status quo, that will be even more tempting for ISPs. You can see the details of this week’s changes below: