FCC to Verizon: Your throttling had better be about managing congestion, not cash

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler listens during an open meeting to receive public comment on proposed open Internet notice of proposed rulemaking and spectrum auctions May 15, 2014 at the FCC headquarters in Washington, DC. The FCC has voted in favor of a proposal to reform net neutrality and could allow Internet service providers to charge for faster and higher-quality service. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the Federal Communication Commission, isn’t impressed with Verizon’s recently announced plan to throttle the speeds on its unlimited plans. In a letter to CEO Dan Mead, he asked Verizon to respond to three questions about its plans. Verizon’s stated reasons for the new policy is to help it manage its LTE network congestion, but Wheeler’s query indicates he’s pretty skeptical of Verizon’s justification.

My colleague Kevin Fitchard described the plan this way:

On October 1, Verizon will start throttling back LTE speeds on its heaviest unlimited-plan subscribers when they move into congested cells on its networks. What that means is that when the network gets crowded, Verizon will prioritize 4G customers who buy their data by the gigabyte over unlimited plan customers who fall into the top fifth percentile of monthly data usage.

The letter from Chairman Wheeler is actually pretty scathing, especially for an agency that recently lost a major court case against Verizon over network neutrality. Wheeler writes:

“Reasonable network management” concerns the technical management of your network; it is not a loophole designed to enhance your revenue streams. It is disturbing to me that Verizon Wireless would base its “network management” on distinctions among its customers’ data plans, rather than on network architecture or technology.

Wheeler argues that not only does the transparency aspect of the now-neutered Open Internet Order apply here, but asked if this behavoir is justifiable under the terms of the 700 MHz auction that saw Verizon picking up spectrum that came with some caveats — namely that it may not “deny, limit, or restrict the ability of end users to download and utilize applications of their choosing,” on the chunk of Verizon spectrum used to deliver some LTE services.

While the letter is strongly worded, I do wonder why the agency is focused on Verizon when other wireless operators also throttle unlimited users on their networks. Perhaps it has a bone to pick with Big Red and the means to do so thanks to the rules associated with the 700 Mhz auction.

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