Study: US Carriers Heavily Throttle Netflix and YouTube

In a move that will surprise few Internet advocates, big US ISPs are throttling Netflix and YouTube post network neutrality repeal.

New numbers paint a seemingly predictable outcome of the repeal of network neutrality. Last December, US federal regulators repealed network neutrality in a strict party line 3-2 vote. Many observers, including us, pointed out that if network neutrality rules are repealed, ISPs would be free to impede their competitors through blocking and throttling all the while favouring their own services.

ISPs have long denied that they would ever do that. They contend that it is not in their interest to block or throttle content. During these debates, observers noted that ISPs weren’t so quick to deny that they would create fast lanes and priority traffic. Unfortunately, with the repeal of network neutrality, there aren’t even rules in place to enforce these promises. All American’s really have is the ISPs word.

A new study recently released paints a rather stark picture on the state of the Internet in the US. It concludes that ISPs are throttling services like Netflix and YouTube. Obviously, both services are legal streaming services. The problem here is that they represent competition for some ISPs who have their own streaming services. From The Verge:

The research was conducted by getting around 100,000 people to sign up for a mobile app called Wehe, which monitored network traffic for participating users to determine when an app experienced “differentiation,” as the study puts it. The app conducted around 500,000 tests, monitoring over 2,000 service providers in 161 countries.

AT&T and Verizon were by far the most egregious throttlers, differentiating delivery speeds for streaming video 8,398 and 11,100 times, respectively. T-Mobile and Sprint differentiated traffic 3,900 times and 339 times, respectively. Most of this differentiation equates to throttling, the study concludes, meaning US carriers are slowing the delivery speed of the data based on the type of data it is — a violation of one of the pillars of modern net neutrality principles. “If you are a video provider, you have a patchwork of different carriers doing different things to your network traffic,” said David Choffnes, a co-author of the study and the developer of the Wehe app, in an interview with Bloomberg. “And the patchwork can change any time.”

AT&T and Verizon do not hide that their networks are actively throttling distinct traffic types, although the carriers prefer phrases like “network management,” terms like prioritization, and other euphemisms that disguise the fact that data speeds are artificially slowed down. Right now, most unlimited data plans from the big US carriers will throttle all traffic once you exceed a certain number of gigabytes used, typically around 22GB or 25GB.

AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile also restrict video to 480p unless you pay for certain types of plans that allow you to stream in HD, by turning off a certain setting either on your phone or doing so only through the carrier’s website. Oftentimes, this throttling is presented as a feature, like AT&T’s Stream Saver, that’s designed to save customers from careless data use that might eat up too much of their monthly allowance.

The news comes on the heals of the Verizon California scandal where the ISP was accused of throttling the states firefighters and first responders. Fire officials state that the throttling practices harmed their ability to send critical information to the public regarding the fires currently burning up the state. In response, the ISP ended up backing away from throttling emergency services personnel, but it seemingly emboldened efforts to ultimately pass network neutrality laws in direct defiance of the FCC.

These latest revelations will only add to the growing body of evidence that network neutrality is, in fact, important. Once ISPs have free reign on controlling and shaping the market, they will take full advantage of the situation and push people to use their services. It is no longer a topic for debate as it is now pretty much fact at this stage thanks to this study.

Unfortunately, what can be done about this now seemingly rests in the hands of politics at this stage. Republican’s aren’t willing to re-open the debate about network neutrality. With Republican’s controlling the FCC, this ensures that the regulator will not reverse course. This means that the mid-term elections is the next available opportunity to get the ball rolling on changing this. Even then, it will be a long road to recovery for the US to reverse all the damage a decision like this has caused.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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