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FCC Wants To Know How Wireless Carriers Manage Data

Last month, Verizon Wireless announced that starting October 1, it will begin throttling the speed of a specific group of 4G LTE customers still on the ancient unlimited data plans. More specifically, the company is targeting the top 5 percent of its "Unlimited" customers who are using more than 4.7 GB of data in a single billing period. However, the company pointed out that the throttling will only kick in if the customer is on a congested tower.

Tom Wheeler, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, wasn't happy about the news (pdf), reporting that he was "deeply troubled" by Verizon's so-called "Network Optimization" policy.

"'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," he told Verizon.

Verizon's Senior Vice President of Federal Regulatory Affairs, Kathleen Grillo, responded to Wheeler's letter, reporting that Verizon turns off the throttling when the congestion on the tower clears up. Essentially, the company doesn't want the top 5 percent "data hogs" to leave all other customers suffering from slow connections. That simply wouldn't be fair.

Last week, Public Knowledge reported that it sent formal complaints to AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless regarding the data throttling practices. The letters explained that AT&T, Sprint and Verizon violate the transparency rule because they don't openly disclose where the congestion resides when it happens. T-Mobile violates the transparency rule because it doesn't provide throttled customers with information about their actual network speed.

"In order to comply with the FCC's transparency requirement, Sprint and Verizon must publish monthly data-based thresholds (as opposed to merely percentage-based thresholds) for throttling eligibility.  AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon must publish real-time information about parts of their network that are congested enough to trigger throttling," the organization said.

Public Knowledge added that this information must be provided in an open environment and in accessible formats.

Now the FCC wants answers from all four North American carriers. On Friday after the monthly FCC public meeting, Wheeler told journalists that the FCC has written to all carriers, not just Verizon. Wheeler is concerned that wireless carriers are moving away from "a technology and engineering issue to the business issues ... such as choosing between different subscribers based on your economic relationship with them."

The FCC has requested answers to questions that are similar to the ones received by Verizon weeks ago. In Verizon's case, Wheeler wants to know why the throttling technique has been extended from its 3G service to the "more efficient" 4G LTE network. He even asks why Verizon treats customers differently who are based on different data plans. Another question covers Verizon's obligations under the 700 MHz C Block open platform rules.

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