Wireless Networks are throttling video streaming 24/7

U.S. wireless networks assert the need to throttle down internet speeds to avoid network congestion and make internet access well-distributed to all users. However, a recent study debunks this claims, saying that wireless carriers throttling internet speed is prevalent — and it’s not because of congestion.

Researchers from Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst conducted more than 650,000 tests in the U.S. found out that internet service providers are throttling different services with a bias to other services — a violation of the basic tenet of net neutrality.

The researchers uncovered that from early 2018 to early 2019, AT&T Inc. throttled Netflix Inc. 70% of the time and Google’s YouTube service 74% of the time. Even if AT&T claims that this move is to make sure that there will be no network congestion, it appears that this claim is not the reason for throttling Netflix and Youtube, as researchers discovered that, at the same time, the wireless carrier did not touch the internet speed when people use the services of Amazon.com Inc.’s Prime Video at all.

Conversely, T-Mobile U.S. Inc. slowed down the internet speed for Amazon’s Prime Video at least 51% of the time without throttling Skype and Vimeo, the researchers said in a paper entitled “A Large-Scale Analysis of Deployed Traffic Differentiation Practices,” to be presented in an industry conference this month.

The researchers of the study, namely, Fangfan Li, Alan Mislove, and David Choffnes from Northeastern University, together with Arian Akhavan Niaki, and Phillipa Gill from University of Massachusetts Amherst, said that wireless companies are throttling internet speeds all the time, and the practice is very “pervasive.”

“They are doing it all the time, 24/7, and it’s not based on networks being overloaded,” said David Choffnes, associate professor at Northeastern University and one of the study’s authors.

The authors of the study denounce the claims made by wireless carriers that internet speed should be sacrificed to serve everyone. While it is true that slowing down internet speeds per user could ease congestion in the network, the researchers claimed that based on their results, carriers like Verizon Communications Inc., AT&T, and T-Mobile are doing it for a different reason.

Furthermore, the researchers raise how these practices violate the principle of net neutrality, where internet service providers should not discriminate based on user, app, or content — meaning, no matter what service a user is accessing on the internet, it should be treated equally, with similar internet speed allocation as other services.

“Net neutrality has been the subject of considerable public debate over the past decade. Despite the potential impact on content providers and users, there is currently a lack of tools or data for stakeholders to independently audit the net neutrality policies of network providers,” reads the study manuscript.

In the past, the FCC has attempted to safeguard net neutrality and has voted a regulation that would make sure that internet service providers will abide by the net neutrality principles. But, was later abolished by the Republican FCC after President Donald Trump was elected in 2016.

The study uncovered that wireless network providers are throttling internet speed with particular distinction in video streaming services. While different internet service providers throttle sites differently, there is a consensus that they are throttling, mostly video streaming services.

“We found that most throttling targets video streaming and that there is a wide range of throttling implementations detected in our dataset. In addition, we investigated the impact of throttling on video streaming resolution, finding that while throttling does limit video resolution, it is also the case that default settings in video streaming apps in some cases are the primary reason for low resolution,” the researchers said in the study.

But Choffnes said that these discrepancies they found could be a result of errors, as some carriers haven’t been able to detect and limit some video apps after they made technical tweaks.

“They may try to throttle all video to make things fair, but the internet providers can’t dictate how the content providers deliver their video,” Choffnes said. “Then you have certain content providers that get throttled and some that don’t,” he added.

Nonetheless, the researcher pointed out that net neutrality is an issue that should not be forgotten, and that is the reason why they are motivated to share their results publicly.

“‘It’s important to keep publishing the work,” Choffnes said. “It would be nice if this is not completely forgotten. At least when ‘there’s an appetite for legislation on this topic, we’ll have the data.”

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