A German court has banned an internet service provider from throttling connection speeds for customers who exceed a monthly data limit. Reminiscent of arguments in several other countries, the case came down to the interpretation of the term “flat-rate.”
Deutsche Telekom (which owns T-Mobile) had planned to bring in the new policy in 2016 but for some reason gave several years advance notice, which may have been a mistake. It announced the plan in April, saying customers who exceeded a monthly data cap would have their speed cut to a paltry 384 kilobits per second. Not surprisingly customers — some of whom were on plans billed as offering 200 megabits per second — reacted angrily and the company revised the reduced speed to 2 megabits per second.
That concession wasn’t enough for Verbraucherzentrale NRW, a government-backed consumer protection agency in one of Germany’s states. It sought a court injunction on the grounds that only those willing and able to pay for a higher data cap would get truly unrestricted access, something it said could form a “digital two-class society.”
The court ruled in the agency’s favor, though didn’t go as far as to say consumers have an inherent right to unlimited broadband at an affordable price. Instead it made the ruling on two grounds.
Firstly, it said that as the plans are marketed as “flat-rate”, then consumers could reasonably expect to pay “a fixed price for a certain access speed and [not] expect any limitations.” It seems that Deutsche Telekom’s interpretation of “flat-rate” had been similar to the way companies in other countries interpret their offer of “unlimited” broadband: that you can use the service at any time during the billing period, rather than having the guarantee of downloading as much data (at full speed) as you want.
Secondly, the court ruled that even if some form of data cap was reasonable, Deutsche Telekom’s proposed caps were too low. It said that as things stood, even customers who didn’t use an unusually high amount of data could be hit by the cap.
Deutsche Telekom says it is considering an appeal.