Data Freedom vs. Network Management: The Necessity of Data Caps

by Matt Klassen on October 26, 2015

Over the last several years terms like “throttling,” or the distinctly more Orwellian sounding “network management” have come to the fore, with consumers and carriers apparently locked in a battle for network access, consumers cast as the helpless victims in the face of faceless, money-grubbing corporations, slowing customers’ network speeds yet happily taking their money.

In fact I’ll admit that I’ve done my fair share to advance such a notion, that carriers are engaging in arbitrary broadband discrimination, unjustifiably throttling the heaviest users (although their data is as bought-and-paid-for as anyone else’s) all in the name of better network management and increased network performance.

But if what carriers really say is true, that the gluttonous habits of the top 3 percent of data users actually have such a deleterious impact on the rest of us 97 percent, why the outcry every time Sprint, T-Mobile, AT&T or Verizon implement some sort of policy to stymie the heavy users in favour of a better experience for the rest of us? Is our data freedom truly at stake?

As Sprint said recently in a press release explaining the reintroduction of throttling its heaviest data users, these decisions are truly about improving the overall customer experience.

One way we aim to make the customer experience better is to protect against the possibility that a small minority of customers might occupy an unreasonable share of network resources. With that in mind, we are introducing a new Quality of Service (QoS) practice that applies to customers who choose an unlimited data handset plan launched Oct. 16, 2015, or after, or customers who choose to upgrade their handset on or after Oct. 16 and remain on an existing unlimited data plan. For these customers, if they use more than 23GB of data during a billing cycle, they will be prioritized on the network below other customers for the remainder of their billing cycle, only in times and locations where the network is constrained. (These customers will still be able to use unlimited amounts of data without the worry of overage charges.)

Now again, Sprint is hardly the only one to do this. In fact, for the last several months it’s been the only holdout, as AT&T and T-Mobile have both implemented such policies, and Verizon has been doing it for five years already.

So what is the big deal with data caps? Why do people care when carriers throttle the heaviest users to improve the experience of the remaining 97 percent, those who, for the most part, likely never reach their data caps?

I’ll admit that on the surface this seems like another classic case of faceless corporations strong-arming consumers in an effort to grab that last dollar, and here in North America, even the slightest whiff of corporate greed, at least at the obvious expense of the little guy, is met with a swift and decisive response: corporations have the power, so they’re obviously to blame.

But is that true in this case, are the carriers to blame for throttling their networks’ heaviest users? Let me answer that by first stating that carriers are not blameless. For the most part carriers manage their networks so poorly and utilize their spectrum resources so inefficiently that it’s hard to feel sorry for them when a few heavy users create so much havoc for so many others.

That said, while it’s clear that the complexities behind issues like network management and engineering may make it seem like carriers are taking advantage of consumers who pay for data in good faith, as telecom industry blog Data Pricing Plans explains, “The fact is that if you are being de-prioritized under these kind of conditions you are more than likely doing something dubious.  I am sure there are at least a few fiends out there supplying entire neighbourhoods with free or “subsided” Internet access, who are probably very concerned about the data cap.”

Granted many of us likely view anything that seems to limit our “freedoms” with intense suspicion, particularly when dealing with giant multi-national corporations. But in this case throttling the heaviest users is of actual benefit to the vast majority of people, leading me to believe that perhaps we’re afraid that these data gluttons are helpless victims.

In the end let me say that while I’ve long stopped feeling sorry for carriers, I don’t feel sorry for the top 3 percent of data users either. As one who barely using the 1GB of data I pay for every month, I can’t imagine what people are doing to gobble up 23GB; I only know that I’m equally suspicious of them as I am of the carriers themselves. The only victims here are the rest of us 97 percent, so in this case the lesser of two evils does indeed seem to be the carriers.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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