FCC chair grills more wireless carriers about throttling

Photo(Jim Hood @ ConsumerAffairs) Al Gore was laughed at when he and his lawyers debated the meaning of "is" in a legal brief. Now Verizon and other wireless carriers have gotten themselves ensnared in a debate about the meaning of "unlimited." Except no one's laughing this time.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, in particular, is not amused. Last month Wheeler worked over Verizon when it revealed that it was planning to "throttle" the top 5% of its data users who are on unlimited data plans beginning in October -- meaning it would slow down their data connection to discourage them from using the service they're paying for.

But how, Wheeler and millions of others asked, can you penalize someone for using too much of something that is sold as unlimited? Admittedly, the whole unlimited thing put any number of all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants out of business but most of them went gracefully; they didn't walk around snatching drumsticks out of their patrons' hands.

Wheeler found it "deeply troubling," and Verizon snapped back that it was deeply disturbed at his attitude, saying basically that everybody else is doing the same thing, calling it a "widely accepted" practice. This, of course, is not always a good defense. Just try it next time you're hauled into traffic court.

Wheeler isn't accusing Verizon of lying but he'd like to find out if the other carriers really are throttling their customers and has asked AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile to outline their policies.

Truth in advertising

You don't have to look back very far to see how this all came about. A few years ago, Verizon and the others wanted to find a way to charge a little bit more for essentially the same thing, so they came up with the "unlimited" label. Customers who agreed to pay a fixed amount per month wouldn't have to worry about going over their data limits because they would be, well, unlimited. 

But like hungry athletes at an after-game picnic, consumers who paid extra for their unlimited service began packing it in -- watching movies, TV shows, making Skype calls and doing who knows what else.

So now Verizon has simply turned the world inside out: if you want to use more data, you need to buy a limited-data plan which is, paradoxically, more expensive than the unlimited plan.

Verizon argues it is within its rights to do this because its contracts contain a clause saying Verizon can change the terms whenever it feels like it. 

It will be interesting to see whether the FCC allows this truly remarkable inside-the-looking-glass reasoning to stand. Just don't stay online too long waiting for the answer. Verizon may throttle you.