The Difference Between Throttling and Data Deprioritization: A Top Gun Approach

10 March 2017

What's the difference between de-prioritization and throttling

Data deprioritization? Throttling? To be Top Gun about it, we're feeling the need for speed, and all this carrier noise about speed limits is making us lose that loving feeling

The finer print says something about our cell phone data slowing down, but when and why? It may sound confusing but luckily the answers are not. Before getting into the differences between data deprioritization and throttling, let’s spend a moment understanding what each is.

What is throttling?

Just like the Lieutenant wanted Maverick to do when he buzzed the tower, throttling is when your wireless carrier slows down your data speed.

Most carriers offer plans with high speed 4G LTE data, but also offer other plans with data delivered at reduced (or throttled) speeds, often at a discount. It makes sense: you’re paying less for less speed.

Mainly MVNOs and prepaid carriers offer throttled speeds to offer competitive plan prices, but major carriers do as well. A few examples:

  • AT&T’s Unlimited Choice plan throttles speeds to 3 Mbps (1 line is $60) vs AT&T's Unlimited Plus plan which offers faster 4G LTE speeds (1 line is $90)
  • Prepaid carrier Cricket throttles speeds to 8Mbps on all of its plans.

Carriers can also throttle your speed when you’ve reached your monthly data limit. If you’re on a plan with a set data amount, most carriers nowadays don’t charge data overages but instead throttle your speed down to about 128 Kbps — which makes anything beyond checking your email pretty painful — until the end of your billing cycle when your speed is restored.

Many will refer to plans like this as 'Unlimited Data' and while this is technically true, there is a huge difference between unlimited high speed data, and a plan that puts the breaks on your internet connection when you hit a limit.

What is data deprioritization?

Sounds very Kelly McGillis Navy classified doesn't it?

But actually, data deprioritization is when a carrier reserves the option to potentially reduce the data speeds of high-data users during peak times of network congestion. In other words, heavy data users’ requests for more data will be prioritized below other customers during times of high network traffic.

From a network management perspective, it’s a carrier’s way of spreading the love and ensuring the best possible experience for the most users. 

Data deprioritization mainly affects high data users on Unlimited data plans. 

Unlimited Data plans generally allot a certain amount of high speed data (usually somewhere between 22-30GB of usage in a month) before deprioritization kicks in and your speed slows down if you're in a situation of high network congestion — usually during peak congestion times or near a high traffic cell tower.

But only until the traffic clears or you move to a less congested area.

Translation: If you’re a heavy data user and you’re past your plan’s threshold, don’t count on being able to stream your favorite video at a crowded airport or football stadium where heavy cellular usage is taxing the carriers networks. But if you leave the congested area or the usage drops, your data speed should increase.

What is the difference between data deprioritization and throttling?

The easiest way to answer this is with an example. Al_the_Alligator on reddit came up with this spot-on analogy. 

Imagine your data as a car driving on the freeway and the speed limit is 70. You can use whatever lane you want that is least congested and enables you to continue going 70. 

Throttling: You’re driving and the speed limit suddenly changes from 70 to 20 and you are required to drive 20 mph at all time (or until the end of your billing cycle).

Data Deprioritization: You’re going 70 on the freeway but you’re required to stay in the right lane because you have low priority. If there’s no one in your way, then you’re going 70, but if it’s rush hour, the traffic could slow you down to 20. The other lanes may be going 70 but since you’re required to stay in that right lane, you’ll stay at 20 until the traffic clears.  

*Unlike throttling, the key thing to remember here is that with data de-prioritization your speed will increase once the cellular traffic has cleared.

So, if you're feeling Maverick, if you're needing unlimited, it's time to compare...and 'turn and burn.' 

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