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Netflix admits to throttling video feeds for some mobile users

Starting in May, Netflix subscribers on mobile will have more control over their data usage.

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The Netflix logo is is shown on an ipad in Encinitas, California

Mike Blake/Reuters/File

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Netflix has been slowing down video streams for its mobile customers on AT&T and Verizon, the company admitted Thursday.

Subscribers of the company’s streaming-video services need a minimum data speed of 500 Kbps to stream content. But Netflix has, for more than five years, limited the streaming speeds of AT&T and Verizon Wireless customers to just 600 Kbps.

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According to the company, streaming quality was limited over concerns that customers could quickly go over their monthly data allowances and be charged hefty overage fees by the country's largest cellphone service providers. Netflix has also said that it doesn’t limit video quality for T-Mobile and Sprint users, because the two companies have more consumer-friendly policies. The companies automatically slow streaming, instead of charging extra fees to customers who cross data caps.

“It’s about striking a balance that ensures a good streaming experience while avoiding unplanned fines from mobile providers,” wrote Netflix spokesperson Anne Marie Squeo. “This hasn’t been an issue for our members. Our research and testing indicates that many members worry about exceeding their mobile data cap, and don’t need the same resolution on their mobile phone as on a large screen TV to enjoy shows and movies."

Netflix revealed its practice a week after T-Mobile CEO, John Legere, said that his company provided better streams for Netflix users, suggesting that his rivals, AT&T and Verizon, were throttling streams, PC World reported.

Netflix, which presents itself as a vocal proponent of net neutrality, has come under criticism for what many see as a double standard. The company's lobbying for net neturality is recognized for playing a significant role in the FCC’s shaping of Internet policy, which requires all Internet providers to offer equal access to customers and online services.    

“We’re outraged to learn that Netflix is apparently throttling video for their AT&T customers without their knowledge or consent,” said Jim Cicconi, AT&T’s senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs, according to PC World.

“Netflix's admission somewhat undermines its efforts to shape Internet policy,” writes Brian Fung, who covers technology for The Washington Post. “[A 2014 dispute over access to streaming video bandwidth] with Verizon helped draw more attention to Internet providers' broadband practices, and it became one more flashpoint in the fight over net neutrality.”

Yet this is not the first time that the company’s stance on net neutrality has been questioned. When Netflix launched in Australia last year, it struck a zero-rating deal with the Australian company ISP iiNet. The deal exempts Netflix traffic from its customers’ broadband caps, a practice that the company's CEO had been critical of, reported The Verge.

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But AT&T and Verizon don’t have to worry about slow streams anymore. Though Netflix won’t scrap the practice entirely, it announced that it will roll out features that will allow its subscribers to have more control over their data usage.

“We recognize some members may be less sensitive to data caps or subscribe to mobile data plans from carriers that don’t levy penalties for exceeding caps. As we develop new technologies, we want to give all our members the choice to adjust their data consumption settings based on their video preferences and sensitivity to their ISPs' data overage charges.”