Europe gives operators minor throttling concession

The powers that be in the European Union have said its operators can do a little bit of traffic management if they absolutely have to.

The reason for this minor concession, of course, is that the entire continent is being encouraged, and increasingly compelled, to stay at home the whole time as we try to slow the spread of the COVIS-19 pandemic. Most of them will probably be spending a lot of time streaming video, online gaming and so on, so exceptional levels of both fixed and mobile broadband are expected.

On the demand side, EU bigwigs have been hassling Netflix not to let its customers stream in HD, and now they’re addressing the supply side. A joint statement from the European Commission and BEREC (Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications) addressed coping with the increased demand for network connectivity due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It flags a regulation that prevents operators from prioritising traffic, but notes that it allows a bit of light throttling if there’s a really good reason. “Pursuant to the regulation, operators are authorised to apply exceptional traffic management measures, inter alia, to prevent impending network congestion and to mitigate the effects of exceptional or temporary network congestion, always under the condition that equivalent categories of traffic are treated equally,” says the statement.

The long and short of it seems to be that European authorities have given a tentative green light to throttling when needed. However this comes with the implicit threat that if it is suspected that the operator in question didn’t have a good enough reason, or failed to do so in an even-handed manner, then there will be trouble.

Throttling video streaming is not criminal but Xfinity has botched the move

Comcasts’s Xfinity Mobile is going to limit video streamed over cellular to 480p resolution and cap hotspot speeds at 600 kbps unless customers pay more.

In a letter sent to current customers, which inevitably got posted online for all to see (on Reddit), Xfinity Mobile announced two changes to its service: it will limit the resolution of video streaming over cellular networks to 480p (so-called “DVD quality”), and it will cap the speed of hotspots powered by mobile device to 600kps. Although it may help customers’ data plans last longer, ultimately this is a measure to control cost. Comcast does not have its own mobile network and is reselling Verizon Wireless’s data.

Limiting the resolution of mobile video streaming is nothing new. YouTube will fall back to SD (240p or 360p) when the network quality degrades, prioritising continuous play over picture quality. For a long time, Netflix had by default capped the resolution of streaming over cellular at 600p before it gave users the choice to go for higher resolution.

Neither is limiting tethering using mobile hotspots. When T-Mobile launched its Uncarrier programme “One”, mobile tethering speed was limited at 128kps. Even with the expensive “One Plus” the hotspot speed was only lifted to 512kps.

However Xfinity could have handled the issues better to avoid the backlash on its reputation. Xfinity should realise that the increasing popularity of video streaming is the main driver for data consumption. Therefore when designing the products it should either raise the data plan cap of its “Unlimited” data plan, currently at 20GB, or go for real “unlimited” but bill different customers based on the speeds offered, like the common practice in Finland, where per capita mobile data consumption is the highest in the world.

More importantly, Xfinity should have given its existing customers the grace period till their current contracts ran out if it wanted to avoid antagonizing them. Exerting new limitations and charging additional fee for services that are in the original contract is even potentially a breach of contract on the service providers’ side.