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FCC Chairman Questions Verizon's Decision to Throttle Some Heavy Users

Chairman Tom Wheeler says it doesn't sound like "reasonable network management" to him.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler is questioning Verizon Wireless’ decision to slow connection speeds for certain customers during times of peak network congestion.

In a letter to the carrier, Wheeler pronounced himself “deeply troubled” by Verizon’s plans to slow connection speeds for a subset of its subscribers — those with older, unlimited data plans — during times when the network is experiencing high demand. The carrier has said that the plan, which is to take effect in October, is part of its network management strategy.

“‘Reasonable network management’ concerns the technical management of your network; it is not a loophole designed to enhance your revenue streams,” Wheeler wrote in a letter Wednesday. “It is disturbing to me that Verizon Wireless would base its ‘network management’ on distinctions among its customers’ data plans, rather than on network architecture or technology.”

Verizon said it would respond to Wheeler’s letter more fully once it has received and reviewed it. However, it defended the practice, which it described as limited in scope.

“What we announced last week was a highly targeted and very limited network optimization effort, only targeting cell sites experiencing high demand,” Verizon said in a statement. “The purpose is to ensure there is capacity for everyone in those limited circumstances, and that high users don’t limit capacity for others.”

Wheeler wrote that network management typically deals with measures to ensure a network’s security, curb harmful traffic, provide services such as parental controls or mitigate the effects of congestion on the network.

“I know of no past commission statement that would treat as ‘reasonable network management’ a decision to slow traffic to a user who has paid, after all, for ‘unlimited’ service,” Wheeler wrote.

Wheeler asked Verizon to explain its rationale for treating customers differently based on their data plans. He also asked why it is extending speed reductions from its older 3G network to the speedier 4G LTE, and how this policy is consistent with rules that prohibit Verizon from denying, limiting or restricting users’ ability to download or access content.

This is the first time the FCC has made an inquiry about this particular form of “network management.”

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