T-Mobile: Throttling policy for unlimited customers who hit 21 GB is OK under net neutrality

T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) said its network management policy of throttling the speeds of smartphone customers on its unlimited LTE plans once they hit 21 GB of data usage in a month and are on congested cell sites is permitted under the FCC's net neutrality rules.

"We love anything that puts consumers first," T-Mobile said in a statement to FierceWireless. "Supporting a free and open Internet is no exception. We adhere to net neutrality rules which ban throttling on the basis of content, applications, services or non-harmful devices while allowing for reasonable network management and customer choice."

T-Mobile recently updated its disclosures about when customers on unlimited plans might see slower speeds. "Unlimited 4G LTE customers who use more than 21 GB of data in a bill cycle will have their data usage de-prioritized compared to other customers for that bill cycle at locations and times when competing network demands occur, resulting in relatively slower speeds," is the new fine print on T-Mobile's website for its plans.

"This isn't a change in our policy, but we have updated our disclosures so that consumers can see the specific amount of data usage that would put them into the top 3% of users," T-Mobile said. "While the threshold changes every quarter, the management of our network in times and places of congestion has been our policy since launching Simple Choice Unlimited 4G LTE."

T-Mobile notes that if any wireless tower is congested, any user may see slower speeds. "On the rare occasion when a T-Mobile cell site is congested, the top 3% of our data users could see their data prioritized behind lower data users. A threshold is established every calendar quarter," the carrier said. "For the current quarter, a user reaches that threshold when exceeding 21 GB in a month. By comparison AT&T has a 5 GB threshold and both AT&T and Verizon manage network capacity with top 5% of users."

"To provide the best possible experience for the most possible customers and minimize capacity issues and degradation in network performance, we take certain steps to manage our network, including, but not limited to, prioritizing the data usage of Unlimited high-speed data customers who use more than 21 GB of data during a billing cycle below that of other customers in times and locations where there are competing customer demands for network resources for the remainder of their billing cycle," T-Mobile states in its terms and conditions. "Where the network is lightly loaded in relation to available capacity, a customer whose data is de-prioritized will notice little, if any, effect from having lower priority. This will be the case in the vast majority of times and locations. At times and locations where the network is heavily loaded in relation to available capacity, however, these customers will likely see significant reductions in data speeds, especially if they are engaged in data-intensive activities. T-Mobile constantly works to improve network performance and capacity, but there are physical and technical limits on how much capacity is available, and in constrained locations the frequency of heavy loading in relation to available capacity may be greater than in other locations. When network loading goes down or the customer moves to a location that is less heavily loaded in relation to available capacity, the customer's speeds will likely improve."

An FCC spokesman declined to comment on the T-Mobile policy. The FCC's rules say that a network management practice will be considered reasonable if it is primarily aimed at "achieving a legitimate network management purpose, taking into account the particular network architecture and technology of the broadband Internet access service." The practice needs to be related to a "technical network management justification" and not business practices.

Under the rules, carriers are not allowed to engage in practices that permit "different levels of network access for similarly situated users based solely on the particular plan to which the user has subscribed."

After the net neutrality rules went into effect earlier this month Sprint (NYSE: S) decided to end its practice of slowing down the data speeds of its heaviest mobile data users when they were on congested cell sites.

AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T)  throttles the data speeds of customers on legacy unlimited data plans only when they are connected to congested cell sites, regardless of the kind of smartphone they have. Customers on such plans who have HSPA+ devices can see their speeds reduced for the remainder of their billing cycle after they use 3 GB of data, while the threshold for LTE smartphone users is 5 GB.

Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ) still throttles the data speeds of customers on its 3G CDMA network who are on legacy unlimited data plans who cross into 5 percent of data users when they are on congested cell sites. Verizon argues this "network optimization" policy affects a small number of customers. The company abandoned plans last fall to extend the policy to its LTE customers.

For more:
- see this TMoNews article
- see this TechnoBuffalo article

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