Unintended Consequences of T-Mobile Data Throttling

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For most data users T-Mobile still has “unlimited data” — that slows down once you hit your “full-speed” cap. As some of you may recall, earlier this month I found out first-hand just how slow T-Mobile’s data throttling is. I deliberately ran my data usage up tpast 5GB for my billing cycle. I got a text message advising me that I’d been throttled for the remainder of my billing cycle. Then I tested my speeds: yup, I was throttled.

The reason for data throttling, according to T-Mobile’s logic, is to prevent “a few” people who are “abusing” their network from hurting the experience for the rest of their customers. It sounds good on the surface, but there are some unintended consequences to their throttling. Let’s talk about a few of them.

It’s still unlimited data, just slower

The core logic is that more data usage equates degraded service for everyone else. The logical response is to cap data usage, though I disagree with that response. T-Mobile isn’t cutting off data usage with throttling, you can still rack up gigs of data even when you’re throttled — it just takes longer. It’s not forcing users to use less data, it’s just providing a disincentive their continued use of data. But that opens up another problem…

Greater Tower Saturation

When using my smartphone and I have to get something from the Internet, my phone has to talk to a tower, request the data, then download it. I’m occupying a slot on the tower for as long as I’m downloading that data. A tower can only “talk” to so many devices at a given time (dumb-phones, tablets, smartphones, wireless modems, etc.). Depending on what kind of data I’m getting (web page, PDF, map tiles, etc.), the faster I can get the data, the sooner I’m done using the tower’s resources, freeing them up for someone else. The slower my connection, the longer it takes, and the more time I’m going to be tying up those resources.

This doesn’t apply as much to streaming data (music and videos), because the stream is somewhat continuous, but, thanks to buffering, as soon as a “chunk” is downloaded to the device, the connection can be “turned off” until that buffer drains, at which point the connection is turned back on, and the buffer replenished. More and more services are doing this (YouTube, Pandora, Slacker, Netflix), meaning it’s advantageous for carriers to have the highest speeds possible so they can fill those buffers quickly and get the device back to “idle” network usage, thereby making room for the next device in line. (This also helps with battery life.)

Throttling counters this logic and makes the device have to stay online longer than it would have to if it were not throttled. (This hurts battery life.)

Timeouts

When download something, if it seems like the page/video/song is “hung” or “stuck”, the natural user response is to re-load the resource. If the resource has loaded a good deal of data, but isn’t displaying it for whatever reason, a user is likely to “reload” it. The network has to request and resend all that information all over again — every time you hit the reload button or try again.

For example, if a 2MB web page has loaded half-way, and a user presses “reload” 5 times before they finally get it on-screen, instead of 2MB being delivered across the network, there’s now been 7MB of data! (1MB * 5 + 2MB = 7MB)

Remember, the “problem” that throttling is trying to solve to reduce data consumption by some for the good of everyone else. This is yet another instance where throttling has the opposite result.

Perceived Slowness

Before I was throttled, I ran the Speedtest.net app a couple times a week to see how fast T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network was in my area. After I was throttled I’ve run the same app a few times every day. That’s a 7-fold increase in my data usage.

It’s yet another example of the opposite of the intended result of data throttling.

Not only that, I think my data is unthrottled at this point, but everything still “feels” slow. The perception of T-Mobile’s “fast” network to those who have been throttled is that it’s no longer “fast” — even when they’re back to full-speed.

Bad Press

Let’s face it, the average user isn’t likely going to rack up 5GB of data per month, only the “potential abusers” are. But who, exactly, are those “potential abusers”?

They’re people like me. They’re power users who use their phones for just about everything and write about it on websites, blogs, Twitter feeds, and Google+ profiles.

They’re developers who have huge followings on sites like XDA-Developers.com. They’re the people that the “non-abusers” go to when they need help resolving problems, or advice on which phone or which carrier to go with.

In short, they’re the people that you really don’t want to tick off. They’re the people that are going to share their experiences about when T-Mobile throttled them. The people they’re telling may not know a gigabyte from a megabyte, they only know that if they use “too much” their speed is going to do super-slow. This limits the utility and appeal of T-Mobile’s data in favor of either no data at all (going Wi-Fi only), or going to the only “truly unlimited” plan out there: Sprint.

It’s not too late to apologize to your most vocal advocates reinstate “unlimited” data again.

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About The Author
Joe Levi
Joe graduated from Weber State University with two degrees in Information Systems and Technologies. He has carried mobile devices with him for more than a decade, including Apple's Newton, Microsoft's Handheld and Palm Sized PCs, and is Pocketnow's "Android Guy".By day you'll find Joe coding web pages, tweaking for SEO, and leveraging social media to spread the word. By night you'll probably find him writing technology and "prepping" articles, as well as shooting video.Read more about Joe Levi here.