A war of words is currently raging between FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and Verizon Wireless (and other major network operators) over certain practices used to control broadband network congestion. So far, the matter appears, at least publicly, to be limited to exchanges of letters, but concerns over potentially discriminatory policies on network access could eventually push the FCC towards rulemaking.
In a highly publicized letter to Verizon, Wheeler raised concerns over the carrier’s policy of limiting downlink throughput to a certain class of user when localized traffic demand exceeds network capacity. Affected users are those with legacy “unlimited” data plans and who fall within the top 5 percent of monthly data consumers. Wheeler’s main problem with this policy apparently is that it may not be based upon technical considerations but rather is an attempt to drive such users to more costly limited usage plans.
For its part, Verizon claims that its policy, which it calls “Inter-User Best Effort” (IUBE) is aimed purely at “network optimization.” In their correspondence with the FCC, and on their website, they take pains to differentiate the practice from the “throttling” employed by some carriers to manage network loading. Verizon defines such “throttling” as continuously constraining data speed for users once they have reached a usage threshold during a billing cycle. IUBE, on the other hand, only comes into play when capacity in an affected user’s serving cell is insufficient to meet immediate demand.
So who’s right? It’s obvious that when localized throughput demand exceeds localized capacity something has to give. Without any load management practices, everybody’s throughput rate slows down, but unfortunately it will likely be most evident to the users of the applications that are least responsible for the congestion. Downloading a few email messages may become painfully slow for one person, while the guy standing nearby is only mildly irritated by longer buffering times for the streaming video he is watching.
It is also true that Verizon’s IUBE technology is much more effective in dealing with this problem, and is probably less impactive on overall user quality of experience than simple billing cycle throttling. But why limit throughput reduction to heavy users that happen to be on unlimited data plans? They may be the most likely culprits when and where demand reaches a peak, but what happens if things get bogged down and there aren’t any such users involved?
As Verizon points out in defending IUBE, the key to network load management is controlling per-user throughput or priority on a very short term basis. That’s why billing cycle throttling is at best a blunt instrument for controlling congestion. Furthermore, it doesn’t help the loading situation to slow anybody’s throughput when capacity is ample – another strike against throttling. But for short term metering to be most effective, and in fact to embody “network optimization” as Verizon claims, it needs to be applied to all users without regard to their long-term usage patterns or monthly rate plans. I don’t think the FCC would have any problem with that solution.
Elliott Drucker is president of the consulting firm Drucker Associates. He can be reached at [email protected].
Filed Under: Industry regulations