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T-Mobile Disguising Throttling with New Speed Test Data Cap Exemptions

July 2, 2014 ,

On the heels of T-Mobile’s controversial announcement that it will be exempting many popular music streaming services from its data caps, the “Uncarrier” has also confirmed that it will be exempting the Ookla speed test and other online speed testing applications as well.

Unlike AT&T and Verizon, T-Mobile does not charge subscribers overage fees when they exceed their data caps. Rather, T-Mobile throttles network speeds for customers who go past a predetermined data allotment. Depending on the type of plan, customers that exceed the “Data Speed Reduction Threshold” can receive maximum speeds ranging from 50 to 128 Kbps—speeds that don’t even meet the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 1999 definition of broadband.

By exempting speed tests from the throttling, T-Mobile is effectively preventing consumers from learning exactly how slow their throttled connections are. Under the new policy, T-Mobile customers who exceed their data caps will not be able to gauge the actual speeds available to them for the vast majority of their daily usage.

T-Mobile has justified the move on the basis that it more closely adheres to the true intent of online speed tests. In a statement, the wireless carrier said that “[t]he Ookla Speedtest.net application is designed to measure true network speed—not show that a customer has exceeded their high-speed data bucket. Other speed test providers are also whitelisted.”

But this explanation makes little sense. When customers who have hit their caps use the Ookla application, they are trying to measure their true network speed—not the speed no longer available to them. The inability for customers to estimate the actual speeds they are receiving serves mostly to disguise the carrier’s throttling policies. The decision also harms customers, who will lose the ability to plan their mobile broadband activities around the actual speeds that they are receiving.

The move is also the latest in a series of decisions by T-Mobile that exploit online data caps, harm online innovation, and violate the spirit of online openness. T-Mobile, for example, has argued that its Music Freedom program is not a violation of net neutrality because no money has exchanged hands and it offers only benefits to its customers. As with T-Mobile’s music program, however, this new “speedtest exception” only applies to selected speed testing applications blessed by T-Mobile. Even if there is no malicious intent, there really is no reason that ISPs should be in a position to bless individual services over others, be they music services or speedtest services.

The new move, although relatively small in scale, also has long-term negative implications. In addition to carving out yet another exemption from a generally level playing field that has supported internet innovation for more than a decade, the decision artificially makes T-Mobile appear more competitive. Customers may be tempted to sink hundreds of dollars and hours of their time to switch carriers based on perceived speeds, only to find disappointment on the other side. The FCC is also currently collecting customer data regarding wireless speeds, and this decision may bias T-Mobile’s results upward.

Even small moves such as the speed test decision can have large ramifications for the future. In the FCC’s proposed new net neutrality rules, the agency asks specifically about how it should treat data caps. Now is a great time to take a stand against data cap exemptions that threaten strong open internet protections.