Ah, the data saga continues. Throttling has been a long-time practice of T-Mobile, which drastically slows data speeds for users who go over their set-amount of high-speed access. AT&T recently announced a similar practice, slowing the top 5% of users who were grandfathered in on unlimited data plans.

Verizon also made a drastic change to its smartphone data packages recently, switching from an unlimited-only offering to a tiered setup. Now, even furthering the changes to its data structuring, Big Red will begin implementing "network optimizations" to all existing customers with unlimited plans on 3G devices in September.

What exactly does "network optimizations" mean, you ask? It means throttling for the top 5% of users (sound familiar?), except VZW isn't calling it throttling. 

Our Network Optimization practices ensure that you can count on the reliable network you expect. To optimize our network, we manage data connection speeds for a small subset of customers – the top 5% of data users with 3G devices on unlimited data plans – and only in places and at times of 3G network congestion. This ensures that all customers have the best data experience possible.

Okay -- so we've determined that this change will only affect the "top 5% of data users with 3G devices on unlimited plans." It's also worth noting the very defined use of 3G throughout the support documentation; so, you guessed it, this change isn't going to affect 4G LTE customers at all.

One way that VZW's change is differing from what AT&T is doing is that a data amount is actually being defined in this scenario. Basically, if you use over 2GB per month, then you fall into this 5% of high-data-use customers. There is a gray area, though.

You will only be affected:

  • When you are on the 3G network; and
  • When you are connected to a congested cell site.

Notice that last point? "When you are connected to a congested cell site." This one is both interesting and confusing at the same time. It's interesting because if you're in a rural area, there's a good chance that you'll never see a decrease in data speeds, regardless of how much 3G data you're consuming per month. It's confusing because, well, who knows how they're defining "congested cell site."

Another interesting point in the documentation is the comparison to throttling:

Is this the same as throttling?
No, this is not throttling.

How is this different than throttling?
The difference between our Network Optimization practices and throttling is network intelligence.  With throttling, your wireless data speed is reduced for your entire cycle, 100% of the time, no matter where you are. Network Optimization is based on the theory that all customers should have the best network possible, and if you’re not causing congestion for others, even if you are using a high amount of data, your connection speed should be as good as possible. So, if you’re in the top 5% of data users, your speed is reduced only when you are connected to a congested cell site. Once you are no longer connected to a congested site, your speed will return to normal. This could mean a matter of seconds or hours, depending on your location and time of day.

As I've already said, there is no clear cut definition of what is meant by "congested cell site," so I have a hard time putting faith in a large corporation to make that judgment call on a purely objective level while remaining fair to all customers, if that's even possible.

While I can't say exactly how this change will play out for myself or other VZW 3G users, I can say that I don't find it to be all that offensive as long as it's implemented in the way that Verizon describes. However, that has yet to be seen, so I'll hold off on further speculations or feelings until I've officially seen the end result.

How do you feel about it? Sound off in the comments.