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7 smartphone rules changed this week

Mike Elgan | Feb. 3, 2015
The FCC and FTC have been on a roll lately, using their power to side with smartphone users. Here's what you need to know.

Federal regulators have been throwing their weight around lately, and mostly to good effect for consumers and users of mobile technology.

The net effect of their recent activism adds up to a whole new set of rules and protections for all of us.

Here are the ramifications of seven new rules.

1. Carriers can't throttle 'unlimited" data plans anymore.
The Federal Trade Commission ordered prepaid mobile provider TracFone to pay a fine of $40 million. The transgression? It throttled (deliberately slowed down) the data connectivity of customers who had been sold "unlimited" data plans.

Mobile data providers like AT&T and others often used to have it both ways: They charged high fees for "unlimited" plans, whose performance slowed to a crawl once the user reached a specific monthly amount of data.

The FTC made it clear this week in a statement that it will now consider throttling of "unlimited" plans a clear-cut case of false advertising.

Both throttled plans and unlimited plans will still be legal. But they can no longer be the same plans.

2. Carriers can't sell you slow data connectivity as 'broadband' anymore.
The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday unceremoniously redefined what "broadband" means. The previous definition of "broadband" was a meager 4Mbps for downloads and 1Mbps for uploads. That standard was set four years ago.

The new minimums are 25Mbps for downloads and upload speeds of at least of 3Mbps.

As with cases that involve throttling of "unlimited" plans, this is a marketing matter. Providers can sell connectivity at any speed they want, but they can't advertise it as "broadband" unless it meets the new criteria.

The fact even that 25Mbps is legally considered "broadband" hints at the pathetically low standards that data providers are held to in the U.S. Still, it's a lot better than nothing.

3. Hotels can't block your personal Wi-Fi hotspots anymore.
Long story short: Some hotels and other businesses, and most famously Marriott hotels, wanted to force hotel guests to pay up for a separate Wi-Fi connection for every device used in the hotel.

To enforce this money-making scheme, Marriott actually blocked the use of personal Wi-Fi hotspots (devices that connect to a single Internet connection, then make that connection available to multiple devices via Wi-Fi) at one hotel.

The FCC previously fined Marriott $600,000 for blocking the personal Wi-Fi hotspots.

This week, in separate speeches, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler both said in no uncertain terms that such blocking should not be allowed. Further, Rosenworcel said that even more unlicensed spectrum should be opened up for personal use.


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