New research focused on mobile video apps is raising fresh questions about the difference between reasonable and unreasonable network management practices. But some industry observers believe such a debate may be too nuanced to matter in a post-net neutrality world.
The research, produced by Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, used a mobile app called Wehe to measure whether service providers shaped their traffic by slowing download speeds for certain applications or reducing video resolution. Involving nearly 100,000 users, the study focused on apps from Google LLC's YouTube, Netflix Inc., Amazon.com Inc., NBCSports, Microsoft Corp.'s Skype, Spotify Technology SA and Vimeo LLC. Of the nearly half a million streams measured, 5% were differentiated in some way. Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc., the two largest mobile operators in the U.S., were the two providers with the most measured instances of differentiation.
"Throttling on cellular networks is pervasive in the U.S., and occurs in several other networks worldwide," David Choffnes, the lead principal investigator on the study from Northeastern University, said in an interview, adding that the throttling appears "active all the time and throughout a carrier's nationwide network, even though network overloads are not everywhere all the time."
Netflix streaming on an iPhone
Source: Netflix Inc.
Verizon and AT&T, however, both disputed the notion that the app shows active throttling on their networks.
"Verizon does not throttle its customers," Verizon said in an emailed statement, noting that it does allow customers to choose to receive video at different speeds, depending on their mobile plan, and edge providers can choose different speeds at which to send their traffic.
Similarly, an AT&T spokesperson said the Wehe app "fails to account for a user's choice of settings or plan that may affect speeds," adding that the company has already been in touch with the app's developer to discuss potential improvements.
"We don't block websites. We don't censor online content. And we don't throttle, discriminate, or degrade network performance based on content. We offer customers choice, including speeds and features to manage their data," the AT&T spokesperson said.
Choffnes acknowledges the shortcomings around the app's capabilities, noting that Wehe does not have information about users' data plans or terms of service. But he remains concerned that "ISPs are selectively throttling certain applications, essentially picking winners and losers, while potentially making it harder for video providers to deliver high-quality service to consumers." The Wehe app found YouTube and Netflix were the two apps with the most instances of slowed speeds during the study.
But Richard Bennett, a consultant with a 30-year background in network engineering, wrote in a High Tech Forum blog post that YouTube and Netflix have "a video duopoly in the U.S., so any study of video management by source is naturally going to rank them highest." In other words, YouTube and Netflix have the most instances of differentiation because they have the most instances of use.
Nevertheless, Matt Wood — policy director for the media advocacy group Free Press, which supports strong net neutrality protections — said the study raises interesting questions about how mobile operators are treating video services.
"If ISPs are throttling back all video and not picking and choosing some sites to favor, that gives us more comfort because that's more neutral if not perfectly neutral," he said.
For Wood, the problem is that with the repeal of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's 2015 Open Internet order, "We have nobody who has any power to even ask these questions anymore." That 2015 order, imposed under Democratic leadership, reclassified fixed and wireless broadband service to make it subject to more regulatory authority. In 2017, under Republican leadership, the agency overturned the order, eliminating net neutrality rules against the blocking or throttling of lawful internet traffic, or the prioritization of certain internet traffic in exchange for payment.
Choffnes said he would like to see federal protections that prohibit blocking and throttling, with exceptions for security and reasonable network management. "I would also prefer it be a federal law, as opposed to a rule that can change with each new occupant in the White House," he said.
But Congress may wait to act until the legal battle over the FCC's Open Internet order works its way through the courts. Final briefs in the case are due to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit by Nov. 27.
In the meantime, Wood noted much of the political oxygen in Congress is being taken up by other subjects and the FCC has already "cast away" its authority to regulate broadband.
"These questions about throttling video and scaling back definition levels by default are interesting," he said. "But we face a more existential question right now with net neutrality and the FCC's role, which is, 'Does anyone even have the power to ask the questions let alone make the rules that protect people?'"