T-Mobile mum on technology behind detecting bandwidth thieves

T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) started this week with the declaration that it's cracking down on "a select group of individuals" who have been stealing data from the carrier. In his blog post, T-Mobile President and CEO John Legere wrote in no uncertain terms: "No more abuse and no risk to the rest of our customers' experience. It's over."

Legere was talking about a select group of customers who are using workarounds to "steal" more LTE tethered data. Normally, when customers buy its unlimited 4G LTE plan for smartphones, T-Mobile includes a fixed amount of LTE to be used for tethering. If customers hit a high-speed tethering limit, their tethering speeds slow down. If a customer needs more LTE tethering, they can buy more.

But T-Mobile is going after what it calls the hackers of the system who are, in its view, willfully stealing for their own gain. T-Mobile estimates they might number around 3,000, and some of them are using as much as 2 terabytes of data in a month.

It didn't take long for a firestorm of comments to emerge on Reddit forums, with commenters discussing how T-Mobile tracks hidden tethering, the definition of "unlimited" and using the term "abusers" versus "freeloaders."

For its part, T-Mobile predictably isn't sharing the specifics of the underlying technology. T-Mobile wants to keep the technology and methods confidential, a spokeswoman told FierceWirelessTech.

In its support forum, T-Mobile says it's a small percentage of customers who are using apps or other methods that conceal their tethering usage and blow past their Smartphone Mobile HotSpot data allotment. "We've developed technology that can detect these people who choose to break our terms and conditions," the company says. "This is just one more thing we're doing to make sure that users everywhere have the best possible experience on T-Mobile."

T-Mobile is starting out by warning customers who are violating its terms and conditions. If they continue to break the rules, they'll lose access to the Unlimited 4G LTE smartphone data plan and it will move them to a limited 4G LTE plan. "That way, we can enforce our terms and conditions and protect the network experience for all customers," the carrier says.

Analyst Peter Jarich, vice president of consumer and infrastructure at Current Analysis and a Fierce contributor, said he has no knowledge of what T-Mobile is doing, but the company has made no secret that it is a fan of crowd-sourced information. In March, the "uncarrier" introduced its Next-Gen Network Map, which it dubbed the industry's first and only crowdsourced, customer-verified network coverage map. In announcing the map, Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray said it reflects near real-time customer experiences on its network, based on more than 200 million actual customer usage data points every day.

When RootMetrics came out with its latest network assessments, Legere once again took issue and linked to a PCMag article about Ookla results that ranked T-Mobile as the fastest wireless carrier. To determine the winner, Ookla gathered results from more than 5 million speed tests and averaged the results from each user and device in particular locations in an effort to improve accuracy and reduce bias from repeated tests, according to TmoNews.

"They're a fan of leveraging users and apps on users' devices," whether it's their own or from third parties, Jarich told FierceWirelessTech. Could the carrier embed something to check tethering on an app or leverage those kinds of apps? "My guess is that's probably a direction they would go, just based on what we've seen from them," he said. "That's how I would do it." 

Jarich also said he doesn't consider that spyware, the definition of which can vary. The purpose for T-Mobile is to check to see if people are violating its terms of service. And the issue of "unlimited" is tricky. One person may use what they perceive to be unlimited data with their smartphone -- they don't need a huge amount -- while a super high-end user pushes the limits.

It's also telling that it's T-Mobile making the statements about "network thieves" when it has positioned itself as the disruptor that's focused on helping consumers -- in contrast to the other carriers -- yet it's cracking down on these renegades. T-Mobile defines "tethering abusers" as "thieves who download third-party apps or root their phones to mask tethering usage and steal data."

It's also not a new phenomenon, as for years the industry has talked about so-called bandwidth hogs, or a class of users who are using far more bandwidth than most consumers need and may or may not be abusing the system, yet it continues to spark intense debate.

For more:
- see this T-Mobile support page

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T-Mobile to crack down on customers who abuse mobile hotspot data allowance for tethering
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T-Mobile: Throttling policy for unlimited customers who hit 21 GB is OK under net neutrality