Tom Wheeler’s Short-Term Memory Problem

Posted By on Aug 1, 2014 | 0 comments

Oh, how quickly they forget.

On Wednesday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler sent a harshly worded letter to Verizon Wireless, criticizing Verizon’s recently announced 4G “Network Optimization” policy.  In a nutshell, Verizon announced that beginning in October, they will rate-limit heavy users (the top 5 percent) who are still on unlimited plans, while those users are connected to a cell site experiencing heavy demand.

This kind of policy is nothing unusual.  AT&T has long applied rate-limits to heavy users on unlimited plans, regardless of whether the cell they are connected to is experiencing heavy demand.  And such policies aren’t unique to cellular data.  So-called “fair share” policies that limit utilization by the heaviest users, in order to ensure that lighter users have a reasonable opportunity to use bandwidth, have been widely implemented for years, by many providers across virtually all broadband technologies, wired, wireless—even satellite.  There are whole companies, such as Sandvine, whose raison d’etre is to provide traffic management systems to implement such policies.  (If you’re wondering why, consider that the latest Sandvine internet phenomena report found, for example, that the top 5% of mobile data users in the US account for fully one-third of all mobile traffic.)

Then, of course, there was also the infamous (and widely misunderstood) Comcast BitTorrent case, which resulted in Comcast—and probably virtually all other US broadband providers—very publicly switching from targeting specific protocols for rate-limiting management techniques to so-called “protocol-neutral” management, where rate limits were applied equally across all protocols.

Despite the politics, this wasn’t a beneficial change for consumers—but to the present point, the FCC was pushing the “protocol-neutral” line.  Nobody, least of all the FCC, was unclear that this kind of “fair share” management was continuing: the whole point was that such would continue, just on a protocol-neutral basis.

And when the FCC subsequently adopted its formal open internet rules, it specifically allowed for such network management, understanding quite well the necessity of such.  In recognition of that necessity, rather than prohibiting or even criticizing such, they instead mandated transparency: requiring service providers to clearly document any management policies to consumers.

And of course, that’s exactly what Verizon did when they announced their forthcoming 4G management policy.

Now, this was all years before Tom Wheeler joined the FCC, but how ridiculous for the Chairman of the FCC to be firing off letters proclaiming his shock and surprise at the existence of such management policies.  Even if Chairman Wheeler truly were that oblivious to FCC policy-making of the not-so-distant past, shouldn’t somebody at the FCC have disabused him of his ignorance, before this letter went out?

Then again, perhaps the letter was more calculated than that.  Wheeler and the FCC have been subject to withering criticism over proposed new network neutrality rules.  Beating up on a beloved—urr, hated—cellular provider could be just what the doctor ordered.  After all, hardly anything could get those same so-called consumer advocates who have pilloried Wheeler over network neutrality, to sing his praises and join him, like coming to the defense of a small percentage of extremely heavy users who significantly increase costs and degrade the experience for all the rest of us.