Ofcom probes Three, Vodafone over throttling, tethering

Ofcom probe Three, Vodafone over 4G throttling, tethering

Trouble is brewing for Three and Vodafone, as both networks go under investigation for allegedly breaking EU net neutrality laws.

The problems begin with how much these firms allow data tethering.

Some networks, such as Plusnet (on the EE network), offer tethering plans to customers. This lets them share their phone’s 4G signal with other devices, like laptops and tablets, to get superfast internet on the go.

These plans often come at a premium, and with a hefty load of extra fair use terms and conditions to agree to.

Tethering may be a very practical and useful solution for those that need to stay online, wherever they go, but it can be a slippery slope to go down.

Tethering plans often come with strict data caps, bandwidth limitations and excessive charges for overuse. Many major networks don’t bother offer tethering plans at all.

Now, Big Four network operator, Three, are in hot water for their own shady tethering practices.

Following an “Own-initiative enforcement programme”, Ofcom have launched an investigation into Three for a number of deceptive policies. First on the chopping block is Three’s practice of ‘throttling’ tethering customers by artificially restricting their 4G internet speeds.

Open the throttle

‘Throttling’ is a rather dirty word for network providers. It’s embarrassing when it needs to be done, like with O2’s emergency throttles last July, and scandalous when it’s uncovered, like with GiffGaff’s empty “goodybags”.

Now, for Three, secretly throttling data speeds of customers who are tethering might just turn out to be illegal.

Ofcom are looking into Three’s breaches of the EU Open Internet Access Regulation 2015 – a set of laws that ensure an “open internet” where providers treat all data equally, and not restrict or favor any particular websites or services.

Three is also being examined for illegally throttling video streaming data, Peer-to-peer traffic, and customers using VPNs. Three’s practice of restricting SIM cards to only work with a single device is also being called into question.

No free Passes

Vodafone’s troubles are centered around the new “Vodafone Passes” scheme – one of several controversial new ‘zero-rated data’ plans to hit the market in recent months.

Vodafone Passes are a type of bolt-on available with most Vodafone contracts. For £7 extra a month, customers can enjoy zero-rated data for video streams from Netflix, Amazon, Disney, Vevo and more. Using these services won’t count towards a monthly data cap, giving customers supposedly unlimited access to these platforms through the Vodafone network.

Other Vodafone Passes are available for chat apps, social media sites, and music streaming services – made possible through partnerships with major players like Facebook, Spotify, Twitter and Apple.

Ofcom is investigating Vodafone for deceptive “traffic management practices” in handling the data of Vodafone Pass customers, including the throttling of specific types of web traffic, as well as limiting customers’ roaming capabilities when using their data abroad.

Zero-rated customers are also being misled by specific functions of “unlimited” apps that are still charging the customer’s data allowance. Ofcom is examining the transparency of Vodafone’s policies and claims in response.

Further updates on these investigations will be available in June 2018, when Ofcom publishes their initial findings.

MAIN IMAGE: Marco Verch/CC BY 2.0


Samuel Newman is a consumer journalist and blogger based in Sheffield.
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