Bay Area couple voices concerns over throttling

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- This month, President Barack Obama came out against throttling. That's the practice of slowing down someone's wireless or broadband service when it thinks that person is hogging the data. How often this happens is a question for debate. 7 On Your Side has a look at both sides of the issue.

In the last few weeks, two major wireless carriers have acknowledged throttling some of its customers. Broadband providers are also accused of throttling. Some say throttling serves a useful purpose. But others say it's deceitful and denies consumers what they purchased.

This week, T-Mobile agreed to disclose accurate information about the speed of their broadband to its customers and will inform them when they are being throttled.

A month ago, AT&T acknowledged it throttled about three percent of its unlimited data customers. This comes after being sued for non-disclosure by the Federal Trade Commission.

"I think we might be a victim of throttling," said San Francisco resident Bob Bardell. "I don't know for sure."

Bob complained to 7 On Your Side, worried that he and his wife are being throttled by their Internet provider, Comcast. You see, Serena Bardell loves watching late night movies, often streaming as many as two movies a night on Netflix.

"Sometimes one and sometimes 10 times during the course of watching the movie I would get what I call the dreaded circle," she said.

The circle warns serene her device is only at 25 percent signal strength, which is one-fourth of the quality it should be. Her husband Bob explained.

Bob:: "Let's see our previous."
Serena: "Hey, this just went off again."
Bob: "Yes, see here we go, that's it."
Serena: "There's the 25 percent. You can video it. It was playing."

The alert came and went quickly. Bob took video of a similar incident.

Comcast says that isn't throttling. That it's a technical difficulty it has been working to resolve since 7 On Your Side contacted it about the Bardell issue.

In an email it said: "Comcast does not block or throttle customers and we believe in having strong and enforceable open Internet rules."

However, on its website Comcast says it engages in "congestion management". This technique will identify which customer accounts are using the greatest amounts of bandwidth and their Internet traffic will be temporarily managed until the congestion period passes."

So what's the difference between "congestion management" and "throttling"?

We asked Comcast and it says, "Throttling would be preventing customers from visiting certain application or protocols." Congestion management, it says, is "temporarily managed for 15 minutes until the congestion passes."

Consumers Union suspects Comcast and other cable providers engage in throttling, although the companies might call it something else.

"It has been widely reported that throttling can be a problem with cable systems as well," said Delara Derakhshani with Consumers Union.

And here's a question rarely asked -- is throttling good for most of us?

Christopher Yoo is a law professor with the University of Pennsylvania who recently spoke to the California Public Utilities Commission.

"Sometimes when one person is taking too much they slow them down to make sure everyone else gets a fair share of their bandwidth that's available," he said.

Some compare throttling to metering lights on the freeway.

The conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute says the only way to avoid throttling is for government to increase the size of the spectrum available for people to get data.

"Whether you call it throttling or you call it something that's a little less inflammatory, there's a scarce resource that has to be allocated," said Richard Bennett with the American Enterprise Institute.

The issue could be decided by the end of this year when the Federal Communications Commission decides how it wants to protect a free and open Internet; what many have called net neutrality. As for the Bardell's, Comcast maintains their issue is resolved, but the couple says it is improved, but the problem remains intermittent.
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