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October 2, 2018

Consumer Choice and Managing Wireless Networks .

Consumer Choice and Managing Wireless Networks

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Tom Sawanobori
Senior Vice President & Chief Technology Officer

Recently, there’s been some discussion about a technical and wonky issue: how wireless providers manage their networks.  Thanks to billions invested and continued improvements in how the providers run their networks, consumers have seen 40 percent faster service and a 13 percent fall in prices as competition drives better and better wireless service. That competition is driving greater choice in consumer plans so your family can have the wireless service they want.

A recent study – using data from an app called Wehe – failed to account for basic wireless network engineering, consumer preference, and how mobile content is distributed over the internet.

First, a little background on the app.

What Wehe does is run a series of speed tests between mobile devices running the app and the app’s servers using simulated data traffic. This simulated data traffic, when it contains metadata used by content providers like Netflix, YouTube, and others, triggers video resolution functions in a mobile network.  These functions help make sure wireless providers can deliver the video you want and the videos all your neighbors and friends want too.

In order to manage networks, providers optimize the bandwidth available for a video so that your smartphone gets DVD quality without downloading excess data. The Wehe app compares the data speeds that consumers experience with and without that content provider metadata.  If the Wehe app detects a difference in speed, it registers this as “differentiation” and implies this is a violation of “net neutrality.” What the Wehe app is really detecting is basic wireless network management and operators delivering the service consumers choose.

What the Wehe app is really detecting is either basic wireless network management (based on consumer choice) or data management practices used by content providers.  That’s because content providers have data practices in place – outside the control of providers – that reduce video resolution of data traffic flowing through their sites or apps depending on the consumer’s mobile device.

You can read more about how wireless providers manage networks in our primer, but here’s an overview of what the app and this study, while perhaps well-intentioned, failed to acknowledge.

  • Wireless consumers are in the driver’s seat. Intense wireless competition means more consumer choice. Today, wireless providers offer consumers the ability to alter video resolution settings or sign up for data plans that do or don’t use those features.

    Regrettably, both the Wehe app and the study based on that app’s data did not account for how a wireless subscriber’s choices – of their video resolution settings or data plans – may affect the data speeds they experience.

    Wireless in 2018 is not one-size-fits-all, and that is a good thing. This kind of choice gives people the freedom to choose the right mobile experience that fits their wireless budget and their wireless needs. Wehe’s failure to account for the range of consumer plans and options undermines its utility.

  • Consumers see real benefits – like more data – from data optimization. Mobile providers use video resolution control functions to optimize consumers’ data plans and deliver more and more data each year.  Data demand has quadrupled since 2014 and hit a record 15.7 trillion megabytes of mobile data in 2017.  As we note above and in our network management explainer, video resolution control functions optimize video resolution on mobile networks to DVD quality, which saves data consumption without impacting your mobile device viewing experience.
  • What is missing from the app/study? It does not clearly communicate that Wehe detects that these video resolution control functions are in use, and then insinuates that such “service differentiations”, in their words, somehow run contrary to the principles of an open internet. They don’t. Data is treated as consumers choose, and all wireless providers are trying to do is provide subscribers with more data – for instance, if you’re watching mobile video on a 10 GB data plan, you can either watch six hours of 1080p video or you can watch 14 hours of 480p video – an improvement of 60% for a nearly negligible improvement in small screen viewing.

Here’s the kicker: the app does not actually measure what it purports to measure – the video resolution that mobile consumers are actually viewing.

The Wehe app is not measuring performance between users and content providers like Netflix or YouTube, but instead uses simulated data traffic to their own servers. This simulated traffic between artificial network end points is 1) not disclosed and 2) has nothing to do with actual network performance between mobile customers and actual content providers.

We support efforts to empower wireless consumers – just not misleading ones.  And the Wehe app and study fall into the latter camp.  When we talk about wireless and the open internet, we need to make sure we account for our network realities, the complexity of delivering wireless signals to you wherever you are, and celebrate the options and customization we have today and will have tomorrow.

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