How Verizon & Other Mobile Carriers Are Limiting Your ‘Unlimited’ Data

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Yesterday, Verizon announced that it was dumping its much vaunted, and still heavily advertised, “unlimited” plan, which had already been showing cracks. It turns out that “unlimited” will be very limited. And most tellingly, what’s limited the most is what people use the most: Online video and music.

How can your mobile provider limit your “unlimited” data? By using “throttling.” When your phone uses certain services, like Netflix or Spotify, the network automatically downgrades its speed. So you still technically have unlimited access, meaning you haven’t been lied to as far as a lawyer is concerned, but your speed slows to a crawl (sometimes too slow to stream at all). Think of it as “unlimited appetizers,” except once you have your mozzarella sticks, all you get after that is bread, no butter. Hey, it’s an appetizer, right? They didn’t say “unlimited good appetizers.”

Verizon is being called out — in part because after bringing in so many customers by offering a simple, direct unlimited data plan, it’s now going back on its promises, as Engadget notes, with the cheapest plan costing $75 a month and giving you little for it:

Customers who pick the cheapest plan can have their data speeds throttled at any time. Video won’t stream above 480p and tethering data is limited to the ludicrously slow speed of 600Kbps. Meanwhile, opting for the more expensive plan limits you to 720p video on phones and 1080p video on tablets, and you’ll only be throttled if the network is congested and you’ve used more than 22GB of data in one billing cycle.

Most tellingly, however, even on the “Beyond Unlimited” plan, which is $85, those video resolutions are locked. Even if you opt for the more expensive plan, you can’t stream video at a higher resolution. Verizon claims, and is technically correct, that most people won’t notice the difference. Even if your phone is capable of 4K in the first place, you’d have to practically be rubbing your eyeballs on the screen for it to matter. But so what? If you’re paying for an unlimited plan, why can’t you stream The Defenders in 4K on your phone if you so choose?

More to the point, even streaming data at the lower rate counts against your plan, so, essentially, you’re being penalized for using Netflix on the Verizon network. While it’d be nice to pretend that the big corp is the villain here, really it’s just a company living down to industry standards. AT&T locked video at 480p and had the chutzpah to present this as a service. T-Mobile, at least, doesn’t count 480p video streaming against your data plan, and you can, in fact, use your data for a higher resolution stream. The only major provider who doesn’t enforce a 480p video lock is Sprint, which allows 1080p streaming, but also throttles Spotify and other audio apps and gaming.

Why would mobile providers do this? There are a few answers to that, starting with simple cheapness. Having built networks already, mobile providers would rather squeeze those assets for all they’re worth rather than upgrade their infrastructure. AT&T, for example, would rather spend $69 billion buying a satellite company to offer you free HBO rather than improve your cell service (or, for that matter, AT&T’s wired broadband offerings.)

Another, more insidious, answer is that Netflix, YouTube, Spotify and other services are competitors in the eyes of some networks. Verizon, for example, is part of Verizon Communications, and its sister companies have had ugly spats with Netflix in the past. More relevantly, Verizon attempted a swing at Netflix and YouTube with Go90, which, unlike those apps, doesn’t use data when you stream from it. Granted, Verizon isn’t the first company to attempt to swipe at Netflix this way, but it’s still questionable on a number of levels.

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This is no threat to Netflix. As we’ve noted elsewhere, it takes far, far more to rival Netflix than just a fat roll of cash and a supposedly captive audience. But it does illustrate a larger problem. After all, AT&T is on the verge of buying CNN, among other networks. Is it going to ding your data plan if you watch MSNBC or Fox News? And keep in mind, despite net neutrality’s incredible popularity with the American people, Trump appointee Ajit Pai is so dedicated to allowing this to happen, he’s pretending that identity-stealing spambotsare real people.

For now, this is an inconvenience, a misleading use of phrase you need to be aware of. But as we become more reliant on streams of data, over the air and across wires, this problem is sure to evolve into a significant debate.