Tethers, Rules and Consequences for Verizon

If you’ve been occasionally frustrated by your Internet service, you’re not alone. Service interruptions, slow download speeds, and climbing costs are common complaints.  But it could be worse.

Suppose your ISP told you what brand of computer you had to use, and what kind of software you could run on it.  Want to try a new program?  Sorry, but you can only use the ones from vendors your ISP approves, or sells to you from its own marketplace at a needlessly jacked up price.  That wouldn’t just be outrageous, but would also violate even the weak net neutrality rules the FCC adopted last year for hard-wired Internet service.

But a very large loophole in those rules is that they do not protect wireless Internet access to the same degree. However,one wireless carrier has to meet a higher standard, a condition of the license that allows it to use the public airwaves for its 4G service.

Verizon accepted those terms. But now that it has the license, it seems to have forgotten its obligation to its customers, imposing an anti-tethering policy that defies the restrictions and limits customer choices unlawfully.

On Monday, Free Press filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission charging that Verizon Wireless is violating its licensing agreement, which prohibits Verizon from limiting or restricting the applications and devices that customers can use on that particular spectrum.  It was designed to ensure a minimum level of openness in the mobile Internet space.

But Verizon apparently ignored those rules in blocking its customers’ access to tethering applications that turn a wireless phone into a wi-fi hot spot for laptops and tablet computers.  Free Press wants the FCC to investigate and put a stop to Verizon’s defiant, unlawful policy.

[Read the complaint HERE.]

Last month, tech blogs reported that several carriers, including Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile, asked Google to remove tethering applications from the Android Market. Such moves to block customer access are bad for all consumers, but Verizon’s practice is especially problematic because it violates FCC spectrum license terms.

But why would Verizon want to block its customers’ access to such a low-cost, handy option?  So it can charge them for it—carriers typically charge their subscribers an additional monthly fee for tethering.

Tethering is an extremely useful, practical and logical innovation for consumers, because subscribers are paying top dollar for data plans. Whether your plan is unlimited or capped, the type of applications and data you use—or the device you use to access them—shouldn’t matter to the carriers.

At Verizon’s request, Google apparently has begun restricting access to low-cost and free-of-charge tethering applications by preventing user downloads from the Android Market. This pushes customers of Verizon, and other carriers that restrict access, toward tethering plans that those same carriers provide, at prices as high as $20 or $30 per month.

In most cases, there would be nothing to stop this practice. The FCC opted not to apply meaningful net neutrality rules to mobile broadband providers, and phone makers have a great degree of control over which applications they’ll sell and support.

On Verizon’s network, however, this is more than the typical application store dust-up. It is a clear violation of the rules that govern Verizon’s license to use the public airwaves. 

In early 2008, our efforts resulted in the FCC adopting public interest obligations for the license to use a section of the airwaves known as the “C Block” – the prime spectrum that Verizon is using for its LTE mobile broadband service. These conditions require any carrier using this resource not to “deny, limit, or restrict the ability of their customers to use the devices and applications of their choice on the [carrier’s] network.”  When the FCC adopted them, then-FCC Chairman Kevin Martin wrote of the rules, “Consumers will be able to use the wireless device of their choice and download whatever software they want onto it.”

When Verizon  won the license for this prime spectrum, it took on the obligation to allow its customers to access any application and use any device.  The C Block rules  ensure a measure of consumer choice and Internet freedom in at least that corner of the wireless market.

Verizon may argue that tethering apps violate its terms of service, which try to prevent you from using “any applications that tether your device to laptops…unless you subscribe to Mobile Broadband Connect.”  But obviously, Verizon’s terms of service don’t trump federal regulations.

Unchecked, Verizon’s flouting of these rules would allow it to block any competing applications routinely. Verizon already tried that in 2010, when Samsung introduced the Fascinate phone, which came loaded with Verizon’s $10/month mapping software.  Google’s free map application was available, but only if you could navigate the maze that Verizon created to hamper your using it.

Verizon and other carriers also may argue that they need to restrict tethering applications because connecting laptops to a wireless network would over-burden their networks. This argument is misleading, and in any case doesn’t get around the rules, which state clearly, “The potential for excessive bandwidth demand alone shall not constitute grounds for denying, limiting, or restricting access to the network.” 

Verizon is breaking the rules.  There can be no question of that.  The only question that remains is whether the FCC will let them get away with it.