Throttling lives on, just in smaller print


Jefferson Graham


USA TODAY

Published 4: 09 AM EST Nov 11, 2019

Consumers caught a break from the Trump administration this week when the Federal Trade Commission announced a $60-million settlement from wireless giant AT&T for not playing straight with the public. 

The issue is “throttling” and wireless companies intentionally slowing down your speed to near unusable levels if you consume too much of its “unlimited” data. 

AT&T said it was sorry, that the practice was way in the past – dating back to 2011 – and that it had moved on to different policies. 

But, actually, AT&T hasn’t stopped throttling. Neither has Verizon, T-Mobile or soon to be swallowed up Sprint. 

AT&T and its rivals are just more upfront about it now. 

What hasn’t changed is the game of semantics the wireless companies play. 

Take the cost of wireless service. AT&T, the company that’s out $60 million for its communication skills, is still at it. Want to subscribe? Monthly unlimited plans start at just $35, the company says on its connection, which sounds pretty great since Verizon charges as much as $80 monthly. 

Ahem. Read a little closer. It’s $35 monthly if you order four lines of service. If you want just one line, the cost is actually $65 monthly plus tax, or $80 if you want to upgrade and get HBO thrown in for free. Except that it’s not. The HBO Go app costs $15 monthly on its own. Cost savings? $0. 

—This week, T-Mobile announced a new $15 monthly pre-paid plan that sounds too good to be true. The rate is great, but you won’t get very far if you like to do normal things like watch YouTube clips, post photos on Facebook and check out the latest Instagram posts. You only get 2 GB worth of service. (The $15 T-Mobile Connect plan is aimed at customers with modest incomes. For $25 a month, you can get up to 5GB.) According to a recent study by market research firm Fierce Wireless, the average monthly data consumed by T-Mobile consumers on an unlimited plan tops 20 GB monthly.

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—Verizon touts up to $750 on a phone trade-in on its connection for signing up for its Unlimited service. But good luck with that. 

We played along, typing in names of recent phones, looking for that $750 payday. Verizon offered $384 trade-in for a recent iPhone 11, $520 for last year’s XS and a paltry $350 for an iPhone X. In addition to the credit.

But then it gets even better. The trade-in deal applies only to phones few people buy, like the LG G8 and Google Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL, not the two best selling brands, Apple or Samsung.

But, hey, you can get a free year of the new Disney+ streaming service if you sign up for Verizon’s Unlimited Plan. That’s the one advertised as $35 monthly, until you look closer and see the four-line fine print. One line is $70 monthly, plus taxes and fees, and Disney+ normally costs $6.95 monthly.

Finally, on the dark issue of throttling, the complaint from the FTC dates back to 2014, but the issue actually began in 2011.

For context, that was four years after the launch of the iPhone and mobile revolution. 

“AT&T promised unlimited data – without qualification – and failed to deliver on that promise,” Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement announcing the settlement. “While it seems obvious, it bears repeating that Internet providers must tell people about any restrictions on the speed or amount of data promised.”

Meanwhile, the carriers are now sort of upfront about it. They tout “Unlimited” in big letters on their websites, and then hide the legalese in tiny, tiny letters in other sections of the site. 

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Here’s how each carrier describes their practice: 

AT&T

“May slow down data speeds when the network is busy.”

Sprint

“Customers who use more than 50GB of data during a billing cycle will be deprioritized during times & places where the Sprint network is constrained.”

T-Mobile

“During congestion, customers may notice speeds lower than other customers and further reduction if using 50GB/mo.”

Verizon

“In times of congestion, your data may be temporarily slower than other traffic.”

Face it, we live in an era where we consume more data than ever before, thanks to endless video streams, video chat, streaming music and the like. The phone has replaced the computer for many people, who live on it in ways Steve Jobs and Co. just never imagined back in 2007 at the iPhone launch. 

So what should the wireless companies do? Throttling only makes people angry. We need our speed and we need it now. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts, readers. Let’s hash it out together on Twitter, where I’m @jeffersongraham. 

In other tech news this week

Speaking of wireless, the long-in-limbo merger of giants T-Mobile and Sprint was finally approved by the FCC, but it’s not closed yet. The government has to give its final approval. 

New products: Facebook released its novel Portal TV, a video chat device for the living room that asks consumers to forget about the social network’s various data breaches and tendency to track everything you do and where you go and attach a video camera and microphone to the set. Amazon released its best sounding and most expensive Echo speaker ever, the Echo Studio. It sounds great, as we noted, but the 3D Audio Dolby Atmos music being touted is a gimmick that just doesn’t play on the speaker. 

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An update to the Mozilla Firefox browser has a scary new feature –a tool to discover which websites are tracking you as you surf. 

This week’s Talking Tech podcasts

—Decrypting 3-D audio with Hooke Verse. 

—Adobe introduces full-featured Photoshop Camera app

—Review: Amazon’s Echo Studio

—Review: Facebook’s Portal TV

—Privacy alert: Google is buying Fitbit

Readers: 

Follow me on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube: @jeffersongraham

Listen to the daily Talking Tech podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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