7 smartphone rules changed this week

The FCC and FTC have been on a roll lately, using their power to side with smartphone users. Here's what you need to know.

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Federal regulators have been throwing their weight around lately, and mostly to good effect for consumers and users of mobile technology.

The net effect of their recent activism adds up to a whole new set of rules and protections for all of us.

Here are the ramifications of seven new rules.

1. Carriers can't throttle 'unlimited" data plans anymore.

The Federal Trade Commission ordered prepaid mobile provider TracFone to pay a fine of $40 million. The transgression? It throttled (deliberately slowed down) the data connectivity of customers who had been sold "unlimited" data plans.

Mobile data providers like AT&T and others often used to have it both ways: They charged high fees for "unlimited" plans, whose performance slowed to a crawl once the user reached a specific monthly amount of data.

The FTC made it clear this week in a statement that it will now consider throttling of "unlimited" plans a clear-cut case of false advertising.

Both throttled plans and unlimited plans will still be legal. But they can no longer be the same plans.

2. Carriers can't sell you slow data connectivity as 'broadband' anymore.

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday unceremoniously redefined what "broadband" means. The previous definition of "broadband" was a meager 4Mbps for downloads and 1Mbps for uploads. That standard was set four years ago.

The new minimums are 25Mbps for downloads and upload speeds of at least of 3Mbps.

As with cases that involve throttling of "unlimited" plans, this is a marketing matter. Providers can sell connectivity at any speed they want, but they can't advertise it as "broadband" unless it meets the new criteria.

The fact even that 25Mbps is legally considered "broadband" hints at the pathetically low standards that data providers are held to in the U.S. Still, it's a lot better than nothing.

3. Hotels can't block your personal Wi-Fi hotspots anymore.

Long story short: Some hotels and other businesses, and most famously Marriott hotels, wanted to force hotel guests to pay up for a separate Wi-Fi connection for every device used in the hotel.

To enforce this money-making scheme, Marriott actually blocked the use of personal Wi-Fi hotspots (devices that connect to a single Internet connection, then make that connection available to multiple devices via Wi-Fi) at one hotel.

The FCC previously fined Marriott $600,000 for blocking the personal Wi-Fi hotspots.

This week, in separate speeches, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler both said in no uncertain terms that such blocking should not be allowed. Further, Rosenworcel said that even more unlicensed spectrum should be opened up for personal use.

4. You don't have to die needlessly because emergency personnel can't locate you indoors.

When you're in a crisis situation -- one that involves, say, a medical emergency or criminal activity -- a 911 call enables first responders to use your smartphone's GPS to find out where you are with some degree of accuracy -- as long as you're outside. They do this through your carrier, and it's information that carriers are required to provide.

If you're indoors, on the other hand, there are no rules for making the 911 system able to find you.

This week, the FCC approved new rules that require carriers to, within two years, start using technology that's able to provide the location of a 911 caller within 50 meters in at least 40% of cases.

5. You don't have to tolerate slow airplane Wi-Fi anymore.

Gogo, which provides Wi-Fi service on airplanes, recently got approval from the FCC for a new service called 2Ku to be installed on 1,000 aircraft. The new service is satellite-based and several times faster than most airplane Wi-Fi systems -- up to 70Mbps.

Gogo says 2Ku will be available to airlines in the second half of this year.

6. The entertainment industry can't use emergency alerts in movie promotions anymore.

The FCC recently fined Viacom and ESPN $1.4 million for using official emergency alert tones in a promotion for a movie called Olympus Has Fallen. The warning sound was part of the movie, but people who heard it might have thought there was a real emergency.

In levying the fine, the FCC made it clear that, well, you just can't do that.

7. You don't have to jump through hoops to complain anymore.

The FCC this month launched a new website where consumers can complain about their cable, broadband and wireless service providers.

The new site replaces an old one that was plagued with antiquated design that made filing a complaint difficult.

Here's the new site.

I don't know why the FCC is suddenly so pro-user. All these new rules are real improvements

Now we need three more things from the FCC.

First, we need the agency to approve true Net neutrality rules that classify data providers as common carriers. No more shell games and weasel wording from the industry.

Second, we need the FCC to allow phone carriers and other companies to block advertising robocalls as a service to users. There's a movement afoot by these companies to block robocalls. And we, the users, want the companies to block robocalls. But, of course, the companies that want to waste your time without wasting their own time want the FCC to interfere. We need the FCC to resist, and allow carriers to give their customers what they want.

And third: Block the Comcast-Time Warner cable merger.

The FCC has recently made the U.S. a better place to use a smartphone. I hope it doesn't stop now.

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