Editorial: Are Verizon LTE Data Caps and Handset Locking Illegal?


If you’ve got a Verizon LTE smartphone, you may be interested in a storm that’s brewing… and may have caught Verizon breaking the law.

Back when TV used to be analog, it occupied much of the 700 MHz frequencies. When your favorite shows went digital, the spectrum was freed up for wireless data. The Federal Communications Commission auctioned off the 700 MHz band, but not before they split it into five different “blocks”, each with different restrictions. One of the other blocks is reserved for “public service agencies”, three are what XDA’s azrienoch calls “small potatoes”. Then there is the very attractive “Block C”.

Let’s focus on “Block C”, which Verizon picked up back in 2008 to roll out their LTE network.

Google thought that block was especially valuable, and worked with the FCC to put some pretty tight restrictions on it — but only if the purchase price exceeded US$4.6 billion. Google then pledged US$4.6 billion if no one else bought it — essentially forcing the restrictions they helped draft upon whomever the winner of the spectrum auction would be.

The restrictions are called “open access provisions” and they basically prohibit anyone with the spectrum from “denying, limiting, or restricting” the ability of their customers from using the devices and applications of their choice on the licensee’s “Block C” network.

Wow, that’s a mouthful!

Essentially, if you have a Verizon LTE device, by law they can’t “deny, limit, or restrict” you from tethering, streaming movies or music, using a “speed trap” location app, etc. Doesn’t that mean that you could potentially gobble up all the data and make it slow for everyone else? Luckily, that was thought of before the auction, too!

“The potential for excessive bandwidth demand alone shall not constitute grounds for denying, limiting or restricting access to the network.” (emphasis added)

Sounds like data caps and throttling are against the FCC provisions. (Perhaps they’re not, as long as the carrier lets you pay for overages.)

Apparently, Verizon thought the provisions were too restrictive. When they bought “Block C” they tried to have the provisions removed, but failed. (Oddly enough, Verizon has been “limiting” data use since last July when they put their caps in place.)

What about handset locking? Does that fall under the “limiting devices” part of the restrictions?

Yup. The list of rules and exceptions for the “Block C” license includes this little nugget:

Handset locking prohibited. No licensee may disable features on handsets it provides to customers, to the extent such features are compliant with the licensee’s standards pursuant to paragraph (b) of this section, nor configure handsets it provides to prohibit use of such handsets on other providers’ networks.” (emphasis added)

If you’ve got a Verizon LTE device and you want to unlock it and run a custom ROM on it, you can — but Verizon releasing LTE devices that are locked would seem to be in violation of the provisions that regulate their ability to use the “Block C” spectrum — so would their restriction of your access to their network because of “excessive use”.

Are you a Verizon LTE customer? Do you agree with these allegations? What do you think Verizon should do? What should customers do if Verizon doesn’t comply with the “Block C” provisions? What should the FCC do? Share your comments below!

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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.