Call it network management or call it throttling — but no matter which term you prefer, new research says that video is being targeted for slowing by mobile network operators.
First reported by Bloomberg, wireless researchers using Wehe, an app meant to help users suss out how mobile operators treat different traffic types in the post-net-neutrality era, found that YouTube is the top target of throttling, or slowing data speeds, and that video services including Netflix, Amazon’s Prime Video and the NBC sports app have also been slowed down.
The Wehe data is based on information from Jan. 18-Aug. 18 from more than 99,000 users of the app around the world. It looks at whether traffic is “differentiated,” or treated differently than other traffic, which typically translated to throttling. No differentiation was found in 95% of the nearly 450,000 tests. But in the remaining 5%, most of the differentiation was related to video streaming apps and happened on the networks of the four national U.S. carriers — though the numbers, Bloomberg noted, are “partly influenced by the size of the networks and user bases.”
The researchers found that around 60% of tests of various video streaming services on AT&T were differentiated, but how often that occurred varied by app and by carrier: Sprint’s ranged from 3-5% depending on the app, Verizon’s from 45-60% and T-Mobile US’ were 25-53%.
Wireless operators have been using differentiation for network management or service differentiation for some time, often based on plan type or sometimes for specific services such as T-Mobile US’ Binge On. The industry has also shifted toward “unlimited” plans — which technically don’t cap the amount of data consumed but almost always cap LTE data speeds after a certain amount of usage, and provide much slower speeds thereafter (which Verizon recently came under fire for, when the customer was a firefighting agency in the midst of emergency response). Meanwhile, Cisco has noted that mobile data traffic is expected to grow at a 47% compound compound annual growth rate through 2021.
Contacted for comment on the research, AT&T reiterated that it is not differentiating based on content type.
“We are committed to an open internet. We don’t block websites. We don’t censor online content. And we don’t throttle, discriminate, or degrade network performance based on content,” AT&T said through a spokesman. “We offer customers choice, including speeds and features to manage their data. This [Wehe] app fails to account for a user’s choice of settings or plan that may affect speeds. We’ve previously been in contact with the app developers to discuss how they can improve their app’s performance.”
In the case of AT&T, it rolled out a new feature to its customer base in early 2017 called Stream Saver that it advertises provides video quality “similar to a DVD (about 480p)” and caps video speeds at 1.5 Mbps in order to allow users to “watch more video on your wireless devices while using less data by streaming content that it recognizes as video at Standard Definition quality.” The feature “is included on many of [the carrier’s]postpaid rate plans that include data. It has already been added to all existing eligible plans.” Users can have Stream Saver turned off if they wish.
Bloomberg also reported that David Choffnes, one of the researchers who created the Wehe app, has an arrangement with Verizon to measure throttling at all U.S. carriers, for a yet-to-be-published public report.
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