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Netflix has been throttling mobile video on AT&T and Verizon for years

Mobile data caps are the worst

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Following accusations last week from T-Mobile that AT&T and Verizon were limiting the quality of Netflix video streamed to mobile devices, Netflix admitted yesterday that it was the company doing the throttling.

In a blog post last night, Netflix tried to position throttling as a measure intended to "protect our members from overage charges when they exceed mobile data caps." The company said that for more than five years, it has capped mobile video "globally" at a bit rate of 600 kilobits per second — far lower than the quality that modern 4G data connections are able to deliver.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere used video resolution instead of bit rate in calling out AT&T and Verizon last week, alleging that his company's competitors limited Netflix to 360p resolution (640x360) on mobile devices while T-Mobile delivered 480p. Verizon and AT&T denied any throttling of Netflix streams. Yesterday was the first time Netflix acknowledged throttling mobile video in the long history of its practice.

"We're outraged to learn that Netflix is apparently throttling video for their AT&T customers without their knowledge or consent," an AT&T executive told the Wall Street Journal. A Verizon representative told the newspaper, "Verizon delivers video content at the resolution provided by the host service, whether that's Netflix or any other provider."

It turns out that Netflix doesn't limit video bit rate on T-Mobile and Sprint, the United States' No. 3 and No. 4 wireless carriers, respectively. That's because those companies are among the carriers that "don't levy penalties for exceeding [data] caps," Netflix said.

Netflix was one of the launch partners for Binge On, the T-Mobile service that lets customers stream mobile video (capped at 480p) over 4G from certain providers without it counting against their data cap. Binge On seemingly goes against the principles of net neutrality, an idea both T-Mobile and Netflix have said they support, but Legere and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings have defended the feature in the face of criticism from net neutrality advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission recently began investigating companies including T-Mobile, AT&T and Comcast over "zero rating" services like Binge On. (As a content company rather than a broadband internet carrier, Netflix is not subject to net neutrality regulation by the FCC.)

It seems that Netflix is wielding the quality of mobile video — which now comprises a majority of all mobile data traffic — as a tool in its efforts to argue against wireless carriers implementing data caps. Netflix has also taken broadband providers to task in the past, crying foul over having to pay companies such as Comcast for more direct connections to its networks in order to prevent a downgrade in the quality of its streaming video.

In the same blog post in which Netflix admitted to throttling mobile video, the company announced the upcoming release of a "data saver" feature for its mobile apps. The feature will give customers finer control over how much mobile data they want Netflix streams to consume, allowing them to stream lower-quality video if they're worried about hitting their cap or increase video quality if they have a higher data plan. Netflix plans to release the feature in May.

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