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Wireless throttling also a threat to broadband

road ahead

University tests reveal that wireless operators are throttling video services much of the time. However, the tests also show the throttling is not applied evenly, with service like Netflix and YouTube bearing the brunt. Left unchecked, the practice could have severe repercussions for broadband, as well as wireless internet.

Wireless operators apply throttling unevenly

According to Bloomberg, Researchers from Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that AT&T throttled Netflix 70% of the time on its mobile network and YouTube 74%. However, it did not slow Amazon Prime Video at all. T-Mobile, according to the study, was found to throttled Amazon Prime Video in 51% of the tests and hardly ever slowed Vimeo. The two colleges performed 650,000 tests between Q1 2018 and Q1 2019.

AT&T said, “We don’t throttle, discriminate, or degrade network performance based on content.” Instead, the company pointed the finger at the test app used by the universities. AT&T claims it doesn’t consider user settings or plans that may affect streaming speeds.

No surprise mobile operators apply throttling unevenly

We will have to wait for confirmation of the Northeastern and UMass Amherst results. However, no one should be surprised if it turns out that mobile operators are frequently throttling video services. The wireless carriers have long complained that bandwidth-hungry video degrades network performance for all. To improve performance, operators reserved the right to slow down video apps. Moreover, with the reemergence of uncapped broadband data plans, logically, operators would be throttling more.

T-Mobile tried a different approach to throttling when it introduced Binge On in 2016. The plan allowed customers to stream as much video as they liked from select sites if they opted in. However, video quality would be capped at 480p. The video resolution yields an acceptable video quality on smaller smartphone screens and can be streamed at 3G speeds. However, nScreenMedia argued at the time that the program was far from the ideals of net neutrality.

If the test results are confirmed, the fact that the operators are applying slowdowns unevenly should also come as no surprise.

Why it matters more now

Three years on from T-Mobile’s Binge On launch and the world looks very different. Now AT&T is a major content provider, with its WarnerMedia division. Comcast, which owns NBCU, has entered the mobile market as an MVNO. T-Mobile has become a pay TV operator with the purchase of Layer3 TV.

In other words, mobile operators are also content providers. They have every reason to favor their video services on their networks over competitors. For example, is AT&T throttling its mobile Watch TV app as often as Netflix and YouTube? There is no evidence in the university test data either way, but we might expect eventually to find that Watch TV is never throttled.

The corrosive effect of favoritism should not be underestimated. AT&T is already favoring AT&T TV NOW (formerly DirecTV Now.) Use of the service doesn’t count against AT&T’s wireless network data cap. As well, AT&T broadband customers with AT&T TV Now subscriptions get unlimited broadband data for free. Both deals give the vMVPD a significant advantage with AT&T customers over similarly priced competitors like YouTube TV and Fubo TV.

Going forward, it is doubly important that we hold wireless operators to net neutral principals. All the top operators are beginning to roll out 5G services, which promise to deliver gigabit speeds over wireless connections. The first application operators are targeting with the technology is home broadband. Moreover, if their behavior on 4G wireless networks is deemed acceptable, they are sure to behave the same way with 5G.

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