Carrier made “voluntary contribution” to resolve “network neutrality” charges on its 4G frequencies.

Remember the debate about “network neutrality”: the principle that an Internet service provider should not discriminate among Internet sites or technologies? Verizon Wireless remembers; it recently agreed to pay $1.25 million to settle an alleged violation. But our own very limited testing suggests the alleged violation may persist.

Verizon’s problems began not with the network neutrality rules governing all Internet providers – those remain to be adjudicated – but with a specific rule that applies only to certain wireless companies.

At around the time the neutrality debate was first heating up, the FCC was busy making plans to auction the 700 MHz band for mobile data applications. At Google’s instigation, the FCC imposed a limited neutrality rule on one portion of the 700 MHz spectrum, called the “C Block.” Licensees on those frequencies, said the FCC, “shall not deny, limit, or restrict the ability of their customers to use the devices and applications of their choice . . . .” When the C Block spectrum was auctioned off, Google bid up the price to the FCC’s minimum and then dropped out, leaving Verizon to take the spectrum in most places.

Skip ahead a few years, while Verizon builds out its C Block facilities. . . .

Sometimes we all need Internet access for a laptop at a place with no Wi-Fi. One solution is to “tether” the laptop to a cell phone via cable or Bluetooth, so the laptop obtains Internet connectivity through the phone. The cell carriers charge extra for this. (We never understood why; since you are paying for the data anyway, we don’t see why the carrier should care what kind of device you use.) But those having a modicum of technical knowledge can download software that sets up tethering in a way the carrier cannot easily detect. Without detection, the tethering incurs no extra charge.

Verizon’s alleged violation, and the basis of the consent decree that cost it $1.25 million, was twofold: Verizon assessed the extra charge for tethering in the C Block, and it required an app store to block access by Verizon Wireless customers to the software that evades this charge. Those actions, said the FCC, violated the C Block neutrality rules, presumably by limiting the devices customers can use. Verizon did not admit fault, but it did agree to train its personnel on the C Block rules and to write that $1.25 million check. (According to the consent decree, Verizon’s payment was “a voluntary contribution” – we leave it to the reader to parse that particular terminology.)

In principle, then, if you have a 4G phone that uses C Block, tethering should be free. (Caution: data caps still apply; and a laptop can burn through data a lot faster than a phone.) 

Curious, we performed a very limited spot check to see whether Verizon had stopped charging its problematic $20 fee for tethering. What we found: three days after release of the consent decree – and possibly weeks after first hearing from the FCC – Verizon was still demanding $20 extra per month to tether a C Block phone. Eventually, we hope, they will push out updates to the phones that eliminate the charge.

If you live in the lower 48 or Hawaii and are not a Verizon Wireless customer, or don’t have 4G service, you are out of luck. Tethering charges remain legal. If you are a Verizon Wireless customer, and want to check if your phone uses C Block, do the following:

  1. Find the phone’s FCC ID number – for a non-iPhone, usually under the battery. (Verizon does not presently offer a 4G iPhone.)
  1. Go to this FCC website. Enter the FCC ID number: the first three characters go in the first field, and all other characters in the second field. Scroll down and click on “Start Search.”
  1. On the next screen, inspect the right-hand column, which lists the frequencies on which the phone is authorized to transmit. Look for a number in the 776–787 range. If you find one, congratulations! You’ve got a C Block phone, and are probably entitled to free tethering (and maybe to free hot spot use as well). We say “probably” because your particular Verizon plan or location may not activate the C Block frequencies.

But even if you qualify, can you actually get free tethering and hot spot service? And refunds for past charges? Neither the FCC nor Verizon is saying.

Run your own experiment, if you have a C Block phone. Using the micro-USB to USB cable that came with the phone, connect the phone to a laptop, and turn both on. On the phone, go into Settings, and possibly More Settings or Advanced, looking for “USB Tethering.” Tap it and see what happens. What happened to us was a “Sign up” screen inviting us to incur that $20 per month. (You can back away without starting the charge.) Let us know your own results by posting a comment below.

On at least some app stores, software to bypass the tethering charges remains freely available, even for a Verizon phone. And besides pocketing the $20 per month, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that use of the software is probably legal, at least for you.