Verizon Wireless Busted for Violating Network Neutrality

In December, 2010, Verizon Wireless began operating its network via C-Block spectrum with licenses it acquired in the 2008 auction. In keeping with net neutrality rules unique to C-Block usage, Verizon agreed long ago that it would not block or limit consumers' ability to tether on their 4G LTE network.

Tethering allows a consumer to use a device, such as a smartphone, as a modem to funnel Internet access to an additional device. On July 31, the FCC agreed to end an investigation into whether or not Verizon Wireless had violated this rule. In exchange, Verizon Wireless would make a $1.25 million "voluntary contribution."  Verizon Wireless did not admit it broke the rules. The FCC's consent decree requires the practice cease and that Verizon Wireless implement policies to curtail the behavior.

The story began in 2011. Verizon Wireless began charging its customers an addition $20 per month to allow them to tether additional devices to their smartphones and called the feature "Mobile Broadband Connect."

The Free Press filed a complaint. The FCC began their investigation in October, 2011. From the Free Press website:

Free Press argued that by preventing customers from downloading these applications that allow customers to use their phones as mobile hotspots, Verizon violated conditions of its 700 MHz C Block licenses, the spectrum in which Verizon operates its LTE service. When Verizon purchased the licenses, it agreed to abide by conditions that it not “deny, limit or restrict” its customers’ ability to use the applications or devices of their choosing.

The company also asked the Google Play Store store to block Verizon Wireless customers from accessing software that would enable tethering. Google complied with the request, even though it has often advocated for net neutrality, but were not investigated because they are not an ISP.

Free Press Logo

From Free Press Policy Director Matt Wood:

Today's action makes it clear that Verizon was flaunting its obligations as a spectrum-license holder and engaging in anti-competitive behavior that harmed consumers and innovation.

The FCC sent a strong signal to the market that companies cannot ignore their pro-consumer obligations. Unfortunately, the fact that Verizon worked to block these apps in the first place is a clear indication that wireless providers have a strong incentive to discriminate against certain content and applications, an incentive that continues to threaten online freedom and innovation. While we are pleased that the FCC finally acted on our long-standing complaint, and did so before taking action on Verizon's pending spectrum acquisitions, we remain concerned that consumers of other carriers lack the same basic protections that Verizon's customers have under the law.

We encourage 4G users to test to see it Verizon Wireless got the message and changed its ways. Apparently, Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth ran this test three days after the consent decree was released. At the time, Verizon Wireless was still trying to charge $20 for the ability to tether.

Using the micro-USB to USB cable that came with the phone, connect the phone to a laptop, and turn both on. On the phone, go into Settings, and possibly More Settings or Advanced, looking for “USB Tethering.” Tap it and see what happens. What happened to us was a “Sign up” screen inviting us to incur that $20 per month.


AT&T Logo

Apparently, Verizon isn't the only big corporate telco snubbing its nose at net neutrality protections for consumers. The freepress just reported on AT&T's similar attempt to nickel and dime customers with added restrictions:

AT&T just announced that unless its iPhone customers subscribe to a more expensive "mobile share" unlimited text-and-voice plan, the company will cripple the device's built-in FaceTime app so users can't make mobile video calls.

So if you want to use an app rather than make a call -- something you'll be able to do on a "3G" network when Apple updates its operating system -- then you first have to pay for more old-fashioned phone calls and text messages. Say what?

You can learn more and let the FCC know your thoughts on AT&T's policy change at the freepress Take Action page.

The FCC has only applied the bare minimum of regulations on wireless, far less than what we, and groups like Free Press, believe are best of innovation and consumer protection. But AT&T and Verizon are running roughshod over even these basic rules. We are heartened to see the FCC upholding its rules and protecting the public interest in this case.