Earlier this week, Verizon and AT&T introduced new services for some of their respective customers:
- Verizon advertised a “Fios Gigabit Connection” plan that promises “gigabit internet connection service” for more than 8 million homes scattered across Virginia, Washington, D.C., and the Northeast, with prices starting at $US69.99 a month. This is an upgrade over the “Fios Instant Internet” service the company launched in January.
- AT&T advertised a “5G Evolution” service that gives Samsung Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ owners in select areas of Austin, Texas faster mobile internet speeds. AT&T says it will give users up to “twice the speed of [its] 4G LTE network,” and that it will launch the service in “over 20 major metro areas” by the end of 2017.
To be clear: Both of these are nice upgrades. Faster internet is a great thing, and the customers that are fortunate enough to gain access to these services here will likely enjoy them.
The problem is they’re both misleading:
- Verizon notes that what it calls “gigabit internet” averages between 750 Mbps to 940 Mbps for download speeds, and between 750 Mbps and 880 Mbps for upload speeds. That is still extremely fast, but it does not break the 1 Gbps threshold that designates “gigabit internet.”
- The $US70-a-month starting price for the plan only applies to new customers. As Ars Technica reported, existing Fios customers will have to pay $US20 or $US30 more each month, if not higher, depending on what level of service they have today. Those with the Instant Internet plan will pay $US80 a month.
- That $US70-a-month intro price is also part of a limited-time promotion — though Verizon says those who sign up while the promo lasts won’t have their bills raised after the fact — and it doesn’t factor in the usual router fees and additional taxes that come along with the bill.
I am a current Fios customer, and I live in an area that is eligible for the Gigabit Connection plan. Here’s what I see when I go to buy that plan on Verizon’s web site:
- AT&T does not explain everything that makes up its “5G Evolution” service, but it does mention technologies like carrier aggregation, 4×4 MIMO, and 256 QAM. This is very obtuse, but the gist is that those are all advanced forms of current 4G LTE technology. T-Mobile has used them in its network since last September.
- The technology we call “5G” is still in development. The 3GPP, the central standards body for the wireless industry, has said the first iteration of the standard won’t be ready until the end of the year, and that the complete standard won’t be ready for deployment until 2019.
To be fair, the term “5G Evolution” is not the same as “5G.” And AT&T is working on new wireless tech. But the mind trick is obvious.
It’s also very familiar. The news this week comes at a time when the four major carriers offer “unlimited” data plans that aren’t fully unlimited. All four say you may see moments of reduced speeds in areas of congestion if you go past a certain amount of data each month. That’s not as bad as a hard cap, but all of the plans involve some sort of restriction on mobile-hotspot data and/or the ability to stream videos on high definition.
Again, that’s ok! Running a network is wildly expensive. But the point is that’s data, and those caveats are forms of limits, and they are part of plans that are advertised and sold as “unlimited.”
There’s a certain type of language we’ve come to expect from carriers and internet service providers over the years. Actual words are tossed into a blender; they come out meaning half of what they really do; and the rest of the definitions are tucked away in fine print at the bottom of the page.
This doesn’t just apply to consumer-facing stuff, either. In the wake of Congress striking down the Obama-era FCC’s internet-privacy rules, the major telecom players made it clear that they do not sell your “personal information” to third parties.
But how true that is depends on how you define “personal information.” Your name, address, and social security number are off the table, but some ISPs leave the door open to anonymize browsing data, location, and general demographic info, then sell it all in bulk. And the CTIA, a major telecom trade group, successfully argued in January that customers don’t need to give explicit permission before having their web-browsing and app-usage data collected, because it isn’t “sensitive” info. You have to go out of your way to find all this.
I’m not trying to lay judgment here. There is a general predisposition among the general public to distrust ISPs to an extent that
maybe goes a bit far every now and then. And the likes of Google, Facebook, or Amazon aren’t exactly angels about this stuff.
But when you’re in a business that is defined by a distinct lack of user choice, a structure that major ISPs have lobbied to help keep in place, the least you can provide is truth in advertising. The various pledges to keep a “free and open internet” in the wake of the seemingly-doomed net-neutrality laws would be a great place to start.
When I was telling a colleague about this post, he responded with a laugh, and said, “Well, I doubt they plan to stop being deceptive.” That attitude is unfortunate, but wholly understandable.
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