Verizon Changing Up Unlimited Data Plans Again, Begins Throttling Video For All Users

Image courtesy of Silver Machine

Verizon hopped (back) on the unlimited data train in February, joining all of its national competition in doing so. But six months later, as the dust has settled, those plans are getting some tweaks — and every Verizon Wireless customer is getting their video throttled as a result.

What’s changing?

Verizon announced today that its unlimited plans are changing this week.

Starting Aug. 23, the beginning cost for Verizon’s single-line unlimited data plan will drop from $80 to $75 per month for new customers. But there’s a catch: For $5 less a month in price, you get severely throttled video, with streaming being limited to the “DVD-quality” 480p on phones and 720p on tablets.

(Regular HD in wide use is 1080p; XBox 360-level games are in 720p HD.)

Subscribers who actually want to see high-definition video can get bumped to 720p on phones and 1080po on tablets in an $85 plan — the same video quality you currently get for $5 more than you’re currently paying.

These changes in video quality also apply to existing customers — not just those on this year’s new unlimited plans, but all Verizon Wireless customers. After Wednesday Aug. 23, whatever plan you’re currently paying for will drop 1080p access and also match the “Beyond Unlimited” HD quality — 720p on a phone.

Verizon tells Ars Technica that it’s not doing the video conversions itself, but rather setting a bandwidth limit that all streaming video applications will have to go through, capping those connections at no more than 10Mbps tops.

The “Beyond Unlimited” $85 plan also includes “unlimited” tethering, but after using 15 GB of data your connection is throttled from 4G LTE speeds down to 600 Kbps (that’s somewhere in the 2G to very early 3G connection speed range). And tethering is subject to the same video quality caps as regular data use, so if you’re using your phone as a hotspot to connect your laptop to the internet, your laptop’s video is capped at 1080p.

And, as before, if you don’t use electronic billing and auto-pay, these plans all run you $5 more per month.

The real effect

This is a significant change from what Verizon offered in February, particularly with regards to HD video. At the time, Verizon’s offering was more generous with HD video than AT&T or T-Mobile, permitting it by default; now it’s the worst, behind Sprint, not even allowing phone video to reach 1080p.

Verizon tells Ars Technica that the change is all about network management. It seems that you are using your connection to watch too much video: “We’re really managing our network in a way to be able to expand unlimited data to more people,” an executive for the company told Ars.

But in the same way that “Basic Economy” fares now exist basically to drive up the costs of air travel, Verizon’s new “Unlimited” plans are likely to drive up the cost of your wireless bill. For new customers tomorrow to get the same level of service as new customers today will cost $5 more per month, and everyone else is suddenly finding the video they thought they were paying to access throttled down.

Verizon tells Ars that customers will neither know nor care what they’re missing, really. “More than 96% of customers have not used 4K video,” a representative for the company told the site.

But there’s a missing, “yet” on the end of that sentence. Because most video is not yet offered in 4K, and most devices cannot yet support 4K — conditions that are both changing rapidly, with new phones and new shows hitting the market every year.

Now, for Verizon customers, it won’t matter if your phone can support it; you still can’t get 1080p or 4K video if you’re using LTE data.

It’s probably not a net neutrality issue

While the advocacy group Free Press called shenanigans on Verizon’s test of this program and asked the FCC to investigate, odds are it’s not actually going to be considered a net neutrality violation.

For one thing, Verizon’s not picking and choosing among providers; Netflix and YouTube, say, are subject to the same limitations, as are any other current or future video providers.

But even if Verizon were making different deals with different content providers, the FCC officially no longer cares. One of the first things new commission chair Ajit Pai did when he got promoted to the big seat in January was to end and nullify the FCC’s investigations into zero-rating plans.

And of course, that all provides that the Open Internet Order of 2015 (net neutrality) survives past the end of this year — a situation that looks increasingly grim.

We’ve asked Verizon for additional comment and will update if we hear back.