Verizon runs afoul of the "constitutional" right of unlimited bandwidth

iPhone on Verizon ushers in wireless reality

Verizon's announcement that it will, somehow, decide when a smartphone user is using too much bandwidth and slow down their connection so other users are squeezed out has set off howls of outrage and the most convoluted analogies yet put forward to explain the business of wireless networks.

Many of the comments show a teeth-gritting moral certitude that there exists something like a constitutional right to unlimited cellular bandwidth.

Actually, Verizon didn't really "announce" this policy change. Verizon mentioned it in passing, in a document that describes other network optimization techniques it's implementing. The document says that if customers "use an extraordinary amount of data and fall within the top 5% of Verizon Wireless data users, we may reduce your data throughput speeds periodically for the remainder of your then-current and immediately following billing cycle."

Verizon has refused to say how, or even whether, it has a fixed definition of "extraordinary." Nor under what conditions it may or may not reduce data speeds, even if you are using an extraordinary amount of data. Nor by how much data speeds might be reduced or what "periodically" means. The corporate herdthink apparently still is "the less we say, the less trouble we'll get into because people might not even notice the little we've said." That's dumb, real dumb. But even that isn't as dumb as some of the comments about the new policy.

I'm someone who thinks Verizon and AT&T and every other mobile carrier can and should do whatever it takes to manage their network to optimize traffic and ensure that at any given time in a given location online gamers or fans of "American Idol" or World Wrestling Entertainment aren't jamming up the limited bandwidth with video streaming. 

I'm clearly in a minority.

Arvind, commenting on the Computerworld.com story about the throttling, had this to say: ""So bandwidth throttling on an UNLIMITED data plan? Very classy Verizon... very classy indeed." I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure there's a difference between how MUCH data you can put over your connection and how FAST you can do so. An unlimited data plan means there's no limit to how much data you can move. The throttling means that at certain times, you might be doing it slower than at other times. How much slower isn't clear, but I'm willing to bet most of those 5% of users "eligible" for throttling won't know it, unless they're running tests. And most of the time, they won't know if things have slowed because of deliberate throttling, or because of one of a vast array of variables that can affect cellular throughput in a given location.

Here's another comment, which claims Verizon is guilty of false advertising. "The fact that they intend to limit an unlimited service should not be allowed by the FCC regulators who review advertising campaigns for accuracy," according to GMIOF. Apparently, there really are people who think "unlimited service" means a service without any limits, a service that by magic defies physics, instead what Verizon means by the term: you can move as much data as you want for a fixed monthly fee. What does GMIOF think is going to happen to the service for everyone else in a given cell site when a handful of heavy users essentially commandeer the spectrum? They're going to be LIMITED.

ITWARZ posted this little gem: "Verizon can keep their crappy network. The first time I hear Clear my new 4g provider throttling back, they too are out of here!" So far, Clear with its WiMAX-based network (and Sprint which relies on it for its "4G" service) has not data limits. But that may be due to the fact that there are so few users on it, so there's not need for limits. If, or more likely when, Clear/Sprint add limits, ITWARZ is eventually going to be forced to build his own network, since that will be the only way he can avoid throttling. 

The Wall Street Journal story on the speed curbs came up with some great quotes, too.

Here's my favorite, by Christopher Murphy, an executive at a Maryland manufacturing company, and a newly minted Verizon iPhone customer: ""Imagine if McDonald's told their top 5% heavy eaters that they had to wait longer for their food because they consumed more than others—it doesn't make much business sense, does it?"

This is so wrong in so many ways, mainly because of the widespread and misleading use of the word "consume" to describe data use. McDonald's actually MAKES MONEY -- and lots of it -- from that small percentage of heavy eaters. And the reason it does, is because the heavy eaters pay for what they eat. As a result, McDonald's actually caters to these users.

By contrast, Verizon's unlimited data plan for a monthly fee means it doesn't make any more money if I download 30 Mbytes in a month or 30 Gbytes. Murphy's analogy would only work like this: "Imagine if McDonald's told their other 95% of not-so-heavy eaters that they couldn't get a complete Happy Meal, or only half of a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, or nothing at all, because the 5% of heavy eaters had consumed all the rest."

Another customer in the WSJ story is David Shein, a 35-year-old marketing executive from Florida, and also a new Verizon iPhone customer. Shein says he would be "extremely aggravated" if he was throttled by Verizon. "I am paying for top dollar for service. To lessen the quality of service is unprofessional. It doesn't fit their brand reputation," he says. Trust a marketing type to focus on brand reputation. 

At what point, in terms of user perception, does a slower cellular data speed become noticeable? And what's been the customer reaction to date, before the throttling policy was implemented, when slowdowns could have been caused by all kinds of things? What does Shein propose to do when the the slower data speed is caused by a few heavy data users? Yell at them to turn their phones off? I don't think Shein understands what "extremely aggravated" really means. Perhaps he should talk to some AT&T users.

3G networks were not designed for data but for voice, though a lot of improvements have been made, and are being made, at all levels to handle data better. Wireless networks are limited: wireless currently is a shared media, with a limited capacity, and a host of variables that can affect how that capacity is spread among a highly variable number of users, who increasingly are putting more and more demands on that spectrum.

That reality is now acknowledged by AT&T, T-Mobile, and now Verizon, all of whom have made changes in their plans or policies to cope with that reality.

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