Senate Democrats Seek FCC Investigation of Carriers' Video Delivery

A trio of Democratic senators has asked the FCC to investigate allegations that the major wireless carriers are throttling and prioritizing internet traffic, an allegation those carriers say is based on a misconception about what they are doing and why.

In the wake of the FCC's deregulation of internet access, those carriers have said they don't block or throttle, a pledge that the Federal Trade Commission could hold them to, as well as the FCC if they violated its transparency requirement that carriers tell their customers what they are doing now that the rules are gone prohibiting blocking, throttling or paid prioritization.

Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai calling for the investigation into whether the carriers had, indeed, violated those transparency rules.

They pointed to a recent Wehe study that alleged the major carriers—AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint—were throttling popular video apps like Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube and that customers were often unaware of the practice.

Essentially the carriers' response has been that whatever they were doing was disclosed and fell under either reasonable management or consumer choice over how they wanted their service delivered, a distinction the Wehe test was not sensitive enough to recognize or, as T-Mobile put it, "reflect(s) some fundamental misunderstandings regarding the operation of wireless networks.

The senators had written back in November saying they thought the carriers were not properly informing their customers and third-party video providers—like Netflix, say–about their "throttling" practices and asking for explanations.

Markey and company were not happy with those answers, which they published for all to see, prompting for the call for the FCC to step in. They want to know by Feb. 27 whether Pai will investigate or not.

In its response, AT&T said the Wehe study was not an accurate measure since it gives customers a chance to opt for standard-definition video—a difference AT&T says is pretty much imperceptible on most handheld devices and a choice (its Stream Saver option), which it says the study misrepresents as a net neutrality issue, that saves bandwidth costs and would allow customers to stream more video.

Verizon told the senators that it does not throttle or "inappropriately prioritize" video traffic, or other traffic for that matter, based on content, application or service, and echoed AT&T's point about giving customers the option of managing their traffic.

The Wehe test found "throttling" on YouTube, Netflix and Amazon Prime video services. Sprint said it offers consumers various plans at various performance levels at different price points, including the option of standard rather than HD video or data allocations for specialized uses like peer-to-peer file sharing or WiFi hotspots, uses that will see reduced speeds after exceeding those monthly allotments. It says those are content neutral and customers are informed of the choices.

T-Mobile told the senators that it does not "block, impair, or degrade lawful internet traffic, nor does it improperly favor or disfavor any type of traffic vis-à-vis other types of traffic."

The FCC had no immediate comment.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.