from the slippery-slope dept
Last month we pointed to research out of Northeastern University that showed U.S. wireless video performance was thoroughly mediocre thanks in large part to arbitrary carrier throttling. The study, spearheaded by researcher David Choffnes, found that this carrier throttling usually had absolutely nothing to do with congestion. Instead, much of it was driven by carriers trying to impose arbitrary limits on your connection, then charge you more money to avoid it. For example, Verizon now throttles all video on its “unlimited” wireless data connections to 480p (around 1.5 Mbps), unless you pay Verizon for a more expensive plan.
Choffnes is tracking ISP network management by using crowdsourced data from his Wehe app. More recently Choffnes released an updated report that continues to show that carriers arbitrarily throttle video and select apps. But his report and data also found that Sprint (and its prepaid subsidiary Boost Mobile) routinely throttles Skype performance on its networks… without telling consumers about it. The throttling was discovered in 34 percent of 1,968 full tests run between January 18 and October 15 of this year, note the researchers:
“We found a significant number of instances of Sprint throttling our Skype tests. This is interesting because Skype’s telephony service can be construed as directly competing with the telephony service provided by Sprint…We asked Sprint to comment on our findings. Their reply was: “Sprint does not single out Skype or any individual content provider in this way.” Our test results indicate otherwise, particularly for video content providers where we were able to confirm targeted throttling of Wehe tests.”
On its surface, Sprint throttling Skype a third of a the time isn’t the end of the world. But as is often the case with net neutrality, it’s the precedent that matters. Sprint has already tinkered with throttling video, music, and games unless users were willing to pay more money, something nobody in the Obama administration so much as blinked at — even with net neutrality rules intact.
Now, post-repeal, Sprint is throttling a service that could be directly construed as competing with Sprint’s own offerings, something Choffnes told me should be raising alarm bells for anybody interested in keeping the internet competitive and relatively neutral:
“In a neutral network, all of these services can compete on a level playing field to offer a product that attracts the most users,” he said. “When an Internet provider targets a service for throttling, the playing field can tilt in favor of one service over another.”
“This is particularly problematic if the Internet provider’s service is favored, because they can use this advantage to drive users away from competing products and to ones belong to the Internet provider,” Choffnes added. “And because the competition is limited by the Internet service they are given, in some cases there may nothing they can do to regain equal footing.”
Sprint, for its part, justly flatly denied to me and other reporters that this was even happening, though Choffnes stands by his data. Here’s the point where an objective regulator would come in, investigate the issue, and then punish companies if necessary. Of course in the Ajit Pai era that’s simply not going to happen. Under the FCC’s 2015 rules, ISPs had to be transparent about what they were doing so users knew what kind of connection they were buying. With those rules now dead, the FCC has effectively made transparency a largely voluntary affair that ISPs can ignore at their leisure.
That’s where Choffnes comes in. He’s trying to at least hold ISPs accountable by using crowdsourced data to clarify what ISPs are up to. But with the news of Sprint throttling Skype coming and going without a single comment from anybody in a position to actually do anything about it, it’s not clear if knowing alone is going to be enough.
Again, Sprint throttling Skype for a third of its users certainly isn’t the end of the world. But it remains a precedent you should be worried about. ISPs are desperately trying to be on their best behavior right now ahead of next February’s net neutrality lawsuits against the FCC. They don’t want to add any fuel to the fire (well, aside from that Verizon throttling California firefighters for no reason thing). But should the FCC and ISPs win their court battle, you’re going to see a lot more “creative” efforts to impose costly new barriers to access, and less and less transparency with the end user about what’s happening.