In the great debate of Apple vs. Android, one area in which Android devices repeatedly seem to triumph involves cellular performance and network speeds. Many Apple enthusiasts stand by their brand loyalty but admit they feel limited even when subscribing to unlimited service plans on carriers such as AT&T, Verizon and Sprint.
A recent report by Joseph Brown, a developer and founder of iTweakiOS, will no doubt add fuel to the debate. Brown's report delves into the idea that networks are intentionally -- and increasingly -- limiting data speeds for Apple users without their knowledge. Brown claims to have discovered code within Apple devices such as the iPhone and iPad that proves carriers are intentionally throttling data speeds. While it is difficult to prove or disprove Brown's claim based on the information he provides, his post on the subject will no doubt provoke smartphone users who feel cheated by data throttling after having shelled out exorbitant amounts of money for the latest gadgets.
What is Throttling Anyway?
Reddit user jaxsedrin explained in a thread about Brown’s report that the practice referred to as “throttling” sets devices to select the strongest signal as opposed to the fastest signal. While hacks can set devices to select the fastest signal and increase connection speed, they can also adversely affect the quality of the connection, making it more likely for calls and data connections to drop. Brown has since removed his report from the iTweakiOS blog (we have the cached version for you here), which raises questions about the veracity of his specific claims. Whether he intended to uncover a dark underbelly of the mobile industry, or to promote T-Mobile’s services or his own firmware, many note that the practice of “correcting” throttling also has its downside, and that many customers are unaware.
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Carriers consider data throttling a necessary evil that enables them to maintain the overall integrity of their service. Many major networks have policies that involve slowing down the amount of data available to users at any given time, or throttling data for heavy data users or even for users in certain geographic regions. In 2012, AT&T came under fire after a California man sued the carrier for unfair throttling practices on his iPhone. Matthew Spaccarelli won $850 in the case, having claimed that AT&T had throttled data speeds for customers using as little as 1.5GB per month.
AT&T switched from unlimited plans to a tiered plan structure in 2010; however, users who have been grandfathered in on unlimited plans are subject to throttling after using 3GB of data under the policy. According to AT&T, only the top 5 percent of its heaviest data users are affected by such data throttling. Brown, like Spaccarelli, argues that not only does AT&T unfairly throttle its service, especially for Apple products, but that the mechanisms for such throttling are imbedded within the code of the iPhones and iPads the network powers.
Many developers are in the business of creating iOS carrier update hacks, which serve to correct the throttling limits set by carriers and increase network speeds. Brown claims that he found various lines of code that set a constant throttling command while he was developing hacks for Apple devices powered by AT&T as well as those powered by Verizon and Sprint. The lines of code are supposedly the reason many users experience slower data speeds as well as diminished call quality and, in some cases, dropped calls. We note some inconsistences in Brown’s argument, which explains that the operating system that powers the iPhone and other Apple devices is so complex and requires so much data that Apple must limit the capability of its devices at the request of carriers in order to not adversely affect the entire network. However, Brown later states that Apple is solely at fault for the implementation of data throttling measures and that carriers have nothing to do with the issue.
Verizon and Sprint’s Stances
Many iPhone users report diminished quality of service at times and in areas where they reasonably should not, and especially when they have not used data excessively. In addition to AT&T’s words about its throttling practices, Verizon states that it begins throttling its 3G unlimited data plans after 2GB, but that 4G plans are in fact completely unlimited due to the fact that the older 3G wireless network has more users connected at any given time, making regulation necessary. Because Verizon is still in the process of creating and expanding its less congested 4G networks, it is currently unnecessary for the network to throttle data speeds, making 4G favorable for users who want to avoid throttling issues in a 3G network already bogged down by high usage, according to Marguerite Reardon of CNET.
Sprint, which advertises its data plans as “truly unlimited,” has also spoken out about its throttling practices, with CEO Dan Hesse stating that within its terms and conditions the company reserves the right to penalize users who overuse their data plans, such as through constant roaming.
“For the vast majority, your 98-99 percent, to them it's an unlimited experience," Hesse said in a statement in 2012. "But for people that want to abuse it and really run up the big data charge, we can knock them off.” Later, Sprint clarified that the company does not throttle its services but terminates service for those who continue to abuse their data after sufficient warnings.
Many have noted that Brown shows a clear bias toward T-Mobile, in that he gives little indication of what that network’s throttling practices are like, which has led many to believe that he is somehow associated with the network. They note his use of the hashtag “#simplechoice,” which T-Mobile uses in the marketing campaign for its new Simple Choice plan. The network advertises its plan as non-contract, with no termination fees, though T-Mobile recently had to answer for unfair practices after a court ordered the carrier to make the terms of its no-contract plan clearer to consumers. Under the carrier’s plan, customers pay an upfront fee for their smartphone and are required to pay off the phone in $20 monthly installments over 24 months. When initially advertising its new plan, T-Mobile failed to clarify that if customers wanted to terminate their service before the end of 24 months (or two years, the length of an average mobile service contract), they must pay off the remaining value of their device in full, which is akin to a termination fee.
T-Mobile is also not exempt from the practice of throttling, which is clearly stated under the tiers of its limited data plans. While the network advertises 500MB and 2GB of data, it also offers data packages up to 12GB. In its fine print, T-Mobile states that data speeds will be slowed if users exceed the allotments of their data plans, much like AT&T’s stance, while T-Mobile states that it reserves the right to slow, suspend or terminate or restrict service for users who abuse their data, much like Sprint’s stance.
Whatever customers may think of throttling practices, the companies have obvious incentives to stick with the service methods that make them the most money. Many argue that despite T-Mobile’s insistence that its plan is different, it simply shifts its primary source of profit from its services to its hardware. But the bottom line is that throttling is an unfortunate reality for mobile consumers. Although customers expect a certain level of performance from their wireless networks, there is a fundamental disconnect between what is offered and what is desired in terms of data, and until this technology improves and expands, more and more people will continue to experience throttling. It's annoying and in some cases seems unfair, but for now, there's nothing anyone can do about it.