In a move that seems to have caught everyone by surprise, the FCC’s Tom Wheeler has taken aim at Verizon Wireless’s network optimization plans for LTE. It’s a bit puzzling, as network neutrality itself is still in regulatory and legal limbo in the USA. And even if it wasn’t, the wireless has generally been pretty immune anyway.
But perhaps it shouldn’t be a big shock. Tom Wheeler’s history as a lobbyist has been the first thing folks point to every time he does something that looks too corporate-influenced, and his apparent embrace of the fast lane a few months ago didn’t help. I think Verizon’s change to its network optimization policies may have provided him with a chance to earn back a bit of street cred with the other side.
So Verizon is going to be 4G managing congestion by slowing down services for the top 5% of data users, which tends to mean the grandfathered unlimited LTE subscribers. You know, the ones the company would like to move to other plans that aren’t so … unlimited. They say it’s not throttling because they’re doing it intelligently, which is a little like saying it’s not choking if we only squeeze when other people want to breathe.
Of course, they were already doing this with 3G, whose pipes were limited anyway. Applying it to 4G in and of itself doesn’t seem crazy. But the opening that Verizon has given Wheeler is that if users don’t like it, then they are encouraged to switch to a ‘More Everything’ plan, i.e. something not so unlimited but that won’t get slowed down. In other words, Verizon could be perceived as redefining ‘smart’ network management as the kind that manages its customers into more profitable plans.
So Wheeler is demanding explanations, which probably sent the spin-meisters at all mobile operators in for overtime over the weekend. No doubt we’ll see what they’ve come up with in the next few days. But for the moment, it is Tom Wheeler, defender of the mythical ‘data hog’, that is in the news. That puts him back on the other side of the fence he has been carefully keeping one hand on since he took over the chairman’s job at the FCC.
Is it all part of the plan to come up with a compromise framework for network neutrality this fall? That’d be quite a trick…