Study Finds That T-Mobile's Binge On Is Exploitable, Unreliable, And Still Violates Net Neutrality

from the a-duck-is-still-a-duck dept

For a while now we’ve warned how “zero rating” (letting some content bypass usage caps) is a creative way for ISPs to tap dance around net neutrality –potentially to public applause. Comcast, for example, exempts its creatively-named “Stream” streaming video service from caps, but claims this doesn’t violate net neutrality because the traffic never technically leaves Comcast’s network. Verizon exempts its own Go90 video service from caps as well, and to date doesn’t even bother justifying the move. Both AT&T and Verizon let companies pay for cap exemption.

And while these programs all laugh in the face of neutrality, many users still tend to applaud the horrible precedent because they believe — despite paying an arm and a leg for wireless data — that they’re getting something for free.

T-Mobile has been perhaps the most creative in exploiting this belief and implementing zero rating, now exempting some 90 video services from user usage caps and throttling these services to 1.5 Mbps (or 480p) unless a user opts out. But neutrality advocates have repeatedly noted this idea still violates net neutrality given that thousands of startups, educational orgs, and non profits still aren’t whitelisted — and may not even realize they’re being discriminated against.

And while T-Mobile has done some great things for consumers the last few years, T-Mobile’s response to these concerns has been relatively pathetic, vacillating between lying about how the program works, to insulting net neutrality supporters like the EFF while fighting real net neutrality rules and Title II reclassification. Yet because many in the public don’t understand the horrible precedent and just think it’s really groovy they’re getting free stuff — T-Mobile’s Binge On, happily lives on.

But a new study out of Northeastern University doesn’t have much nice to say about T-Mobile’s “consumer friendly” zero rating program. The researchers found numerous problems with Binge On, including the fact that T-Mobile’s promise of 480p video quality is consistently less:

“T-??Mobile says that the res?o?lu?tion for Binge On streaming is 480p (pro?gres?sive scan) or better, which is con?sid?ered stan?dard for DVD movies. How?ever, the researchers did not find evi?dence to back up these claims. In their trials using YouTube, the res?o?lu?tion was only 360p, notice?ably blurry on a modern smartphone.

They also found that T-Mobile’s systems not only had trouble accurately detecting video services:

“T-Mobile?s detec?tion methods are very simple, so there?s no way they can always be right,? he says. “That means that Binge On is likely slowing down traffic that is not video. This raises serious con?cerns about com?pli?ance with the Open Internet Order.”

And they found that the system was manipulable by clever T-Mobile users, potentially allowing them to zero rate services not covered by the program:

“Those simple methods open the door to exploita?tion as well, allowing sub?scribers to get free data even for non-??video con?tent. The researchers devel?oped simple soft?ware that manip?u?lates internet traffic so that it looks like video. For example, it makes any web content?web pages, app down?loads, and photos?look like YouTube traffic. ?We real?ized we could make any net?work traffic zero rated by just putting the right text in the right place,” says Choffnes. “That is a secu?rity vulnerability — it’s poten?tially an open cash reg?ister that people can take from.”

So in short, the report notes that T-Mobile’s Binge On isn’t accurate, is exploitable, and reduces video quality more than T-Mobile claims. T-Mobile (and zero rating supporters) argue that what T-Mobile’s doing is ok simply because users can opt out. But the researchers noted that putting the onus to opt out on frequently non-technical consumers doesn’t somehow magically mean net neutrality isn’t violated by the underlying precedent. The researchers argue that regardless of public opinion on the subject — the T-Mobile Binge On is still a net neutrality violation however you’d like to slice it:

“The internet has been hugely suc?cessful because it enables inno?va?tion, where all new internet appli?ca?tions receive the same net?work ser?vice as incumbents — it’s a level playing field,” says Choffnes. “T-Mobile?s policy gives spe?cial treat?ment to video providers that work with them. What if every ISP did this, but in a dif?ferent way? In such a world, the next Net?flix, Hulu, or Pied Piper might never get off the ground because keeping up with ISPs and their poli?cies would leave them chasing their tails.”

There’s several reasons why we’re not seeing the backlash to zero rating we’ve seen elsewhere in the net neutrality fight. One, again, consumers think they’re getting something for free, and don’t understand that usage caps are entirely arbitrary constructs to begin with, and not actually even useful for managing network congestion (should it even actually exist). Zero rating also is seeing support from companies that historically supported net neutrality (Google, Netflix) because these companies are benefiting from the additional traffic and ad eyeballs these programs send their direction.

But because consumers don’t really understand the slippery slope they’re happily having a picnic on — and Silicon Valley companies are willing to turn a blind eye to these types of net neutrality violations because they profit off of them — doesn’t magically mean what T-Mobile is doing is a good idea.

With the FCC’s net neutrality rules now on more secure footing after their major legal win, all eyes now turn to what the FCC intends to do about broadband usage caps and zero rating. While many countries (India, Japan, The Netherlands, Chile) understand the bad precedent at play here and have banned zero rating outright as anti-competitive, the FCC decided to weigh the anti-competitive impact of zero rating on a “case by case basis.” And while the FCC is currently conducting a rather glacial inquiry into caps and zero rating, ISPs so far have been allowed to employ the practice with relative impunity.

In short, the FCC’s failure to ban zero rating opened the door to net neutrality violations, provided an ISP is just clever about it. Without Netflix or Google’s support, and with consumers believing they’re benefiting from such models, the FCC is seeing notably less political pressure to act. So while it’s wonderful that we’ve got shiny new net neutrality rules freshly upheld by the court system, they may wind up being useless as carriers and ISPs tap dance over, under and around them — to thunderous public applause.

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Companies: t-mobile

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Comments on “Study Finds That T-Mobile's Binge On Is Exploitable, Unreliable, And Still Violates Net Neutrality”

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25 Comments
anti-antidirt says:

Wrong, but so right

I rarely comment because I mostly use my phone for everything and typing this much can be a pain. But as a t-mobile customer, I should.

I agree that it becomes an arbitrary cap. There are no bandwidth issues that companies are faced with, so why make a cap and force it on people? I think t-mobile went the way of simplicity for consumers because they wouldn’t know how to enable or disable it. Whether that says more for the company or stupidity if average consumer, I’m not sure. But, binge on saved me tens of thousands of dollars.

I lived in an area in central Florida where 300 megabits/s was under $100. I know it doesn’t compete with Google etc, but down here, it was blazing. I decided to explore the country by building an RV and travel full time. You can see how binge on helps in this endeavor because contrary to popular belief, WiFi is NOT prevalent like you’d think.

Meanwhile, a family member moved into an area where Comcast has analog cable TV (no Internet) and AT&T controls the phone lines with $45 a month getting you 1.5 megabit per second. Turning a t-mobile phone into a hotspot nets every device connected unlimited video and music. T-mobile in this area is upwards of 40 megabits per second.

Since most people watch videos (how-to, movies, etc) tmobile is my savior. I can download podcasts too and not be affected. The fact that I can essentially have unlimited Internet from a phone, connected to a signal booster, connected to a tower, cheaper, faster, and more reliable than the one landline Internet company (at&t) is unbelievable.

This doesn’t change my belief that it should have been opt-in. But I also believe that the average consumer is technologically stupid (I am in that field, I see it). My morals take over. It should have been opt in, with one hell of a campaign to explain what it is and how it works.

Sorry for any errors. My thumbs feel tired.

Kal Zekdor (profile) says:

Re: Wrong, but so right

Wow… This is very nearly textbook Stockholm Syndrome. You’re so used to ISPs gouging you to hell and back that as soon as soon as one of them lets up on the knife just a little suddenly they’re your best friend. This particular kidnapper might not be beating you just for fun, but you’re still locked in a dark basement waiting for the ransom to be paid, so why are you thanking them?

I can only make this so clear: Data Caps are arbitrary, they serve no network management purpose, they are not necessary. Thanking T-Mobile for Binge-On is thanking them for somewhat ameliorating a problem they created in the first place.

Median Wilfred says:

Zero rating means "usage" caps are nonsense

The point of a usage cap is nominally to keep “bandwidth hogs” from using up whatever i the scarcest resource in the ISP’s system, right?

Doesn’t zero rating or bingeing on or whatever make a lie out of usage caps? That is, I use “Binge On” almost exclusively and so does everyone else. Happy days! But T-Mobile’s scarcest resource is all used up? Apparently not.

Usage caps are pretty clearly just a way to screw a few extra dollars out of your locked-in customers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Zero rating means "usage" caps are nonsense

No. The point of anything a business does is to generate income.

Usage caps are a method of pushing customers into use of the ISP services that are zero rated thus increasing revenue.

Yup – “Usage caps are pretty clearly just a way to screw a few extra dollars out of your locked-in customers”

pjhenry1216 (profile) says:

Re: Zero rating means "usage" caps are nonsense

Actually, Binge On works better than data usage caps. Binge On cuts your bandwidth, whereas data caps don’t. Not arguing for or against Binge On, just saying, that technically, it helps alleviate stress on the system. Stream 480p (or 360p or whatever) is less stress than streaming full HD. Now, yes, you can argue more people will use it, but ultimately, you’re getting more people using the same bandwidth as opposed to less people on the same bandwidth in regards to data hogs.

Anonymous Coward says:

So....

In short, the FCC’s failure to ban zero rating opened the door to net neutrality violations, provided an ISP is just clever about it.

I was right, still right, and going to continue being right until we are all dead of old age, still begging for regulation, any regulation, and have faith that the very organization causing this problem will somehow solve it?

Sometimes I worry that humanity will never get it. Hell, I already know humanity will never get it. To busy being greedy and divisive about every fucking thing possible.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: So....

Oh please. You would be right if the networks were not ALREADY regulated. When no corp like T-Mobile can buy an exclusive license to certain radio frequencies then you’ll actually be right. Until then, if there is going to be regulation it needs to be in the interest of citizens and not corporations.

Karl Bode (profile) says:

Re: So....

“I was right, still right, and going to continue being right until we are all dead of old age, still begging for regulation, any regulation, and have faith that the very organization causing this problem will somehow solve it?”

Right, like when the FCC blocked AT&T from acquiring T-Mobile, resulting in a huge burst of new competition from the surviving T-Mobile, ultimately revolutionizing S.O.P. in the wireless sector.

Speaking of old age, “all regulation is automatically bad” is an overly-simplistic mantra that’s grown long in the tooth. In the real world, people have to actually stop, think, learn, and consider the merits or drawbacks of each instance of regulation separately.

I know that’s fatiguing for those looking for intellectual shortcuts, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Teamchaos (profile) says:

Free the Internet!!!!!

It’s time for a revolution. Internet should be free to everyone, unlimited bandwidth, multi-gigabit speeds. These evil corporations are trying to make money off of other folks’ content. The Internet should be free just like electricity, well, I guess electricity’s not free and it’s pretty heavily regulated. The Internet should be free like air, yeah, except the EPA regulates air quality, but air is still free, so there you go. The Internet should be free (but with a lot of government regulation), just like it is in [insert socialist/communist country here that gives citizens free Internet] – the People’s Internet!!! Shame on those dirty filthy corporations for trying to make money off selling me my bandwidth. If they can’t follow the rules, I say shut them down. The Government should provide free Internet to everyone, that’s the ticket. That’s what government is for, just look at the Post Office or Amtrak or even the DMV. Government control works folks, the evidence is overwhelming, the science is settled. We’ll be so much better off with the Government in control and the Internet is free and open to any opinion or innovation (as long as you agree with, or at least donate money to, the current regime). Think about it. Could it really be any worse than it is now? We deserve a truly neutered Internet.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Free the Internet!!!!!

You make a good point, satirically, but still. The only manner in which internet could be truly free is in a distributed format. While that’s great from a conceptual standpoint, and I would love to see something like that emerge with all the cellphones we have walking around (as a sumpliment to, not replacement of the current network). Security with something like that is a bitch, and it is unlikely to be reliable, or fast.

I think the biggest problem is consolidation. More smaller companies is always better for consumers than a few large ones that can price fix – conversly though, if telcos were not nation wide, your cellphone might be roaming, or just non functional when you cross state lines, or you might just have to pay through the nose.

In the end there is no free lunch. We should stop acting like there is even the possability of a free lunch and instead figure out a reasonable compromise between corporations needing to make a profit and expand technologies, and internet access being affordable to a grad student.

Anonymous Coward says:

OK I admit it, I don't get this

I have T-mobile, and I am fairly tech savy. I really don’t understand binge on because trying to understand your carriers fine print is damn near impossible.

What I love: I pay $92/m with taxes, and for that I get 6 gigs of date for EACH of the two lines I have, with unlimited Pandora, iHeart Radio, youTube, and Netflix.

This is what keeps me on T-mobile as no one else has this. Also, at least where I live and where I frequent, T-mobile has great coverage. So it’s really hard to criticize something that benefits me so much.

Unless you can magically get the FCC to stop sleeping with the telcos, I don’t see winning this argument. I’m also incredibly suspicious of net neutrality. Not the concept mind you, but the implementation on a legal basis. Those that passed it were way to happy to do so, and when the government is happy, you can be sure that they are up to something horrible.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: OK I admit it, I don't get this

The problem isn’t actually BingeOn; it’s the data caps BingeOn circumvents. T-Mobile will only give you 6 gigs a month under your current plan. It doesn’t matter what kind of data you use. They claim that letting you have more would cripple their network. But then enter BingeOn, which takes the Internet’s #1 bandwidth hog (video) and lets it bypass the 6 gig cap. Yeah, the image quality is reduced, but on a phone’s screen, that’s not the end of the world really, is it? You can still enjoy your video.
The point is, with T-Mobile’s heartfelt blessing, you could theoretically stream video on both of your phones plus any devices tethered to them, all day long, forever, and it would cost you nothing more. So if you and all their other customers can suck up all that data without consequences, it kinda makes that 6 gig cap sound pointless, doesn’t it?

Put another way, BingeOn is basically the lube they give you to make their 6 gig per month ass-raping feel better.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: OK I admit it, I don't get this

“I really don’t understand binge on because trying to understand your carriers fine print is damn near impossible.”

That’s exactly what they’re counting on.

“I’m also incredibly suspicious of net neutrality. Not the concept mind you, but the implementation on a legal basis.”

If you understand the concept, then you must surely understand that the government has to be involved at some level.

“Those that passed it were way to happy to do so, and when the government is happy, you can be sure that they are up to something horrible.”

But the opposite, handing control of everything over to a handful of large corporations with a history of screwing their own customers and blocking competition, would have been puppies and rainbows?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: OK I admit it, I don't get this

The problem with Binge On rating is that T_Mobile is deciding what video source you can use, and with no guarantee that they will always allow you to use the current set of services. This means that they can use their control over what services a customer can use, they can use them as hostages in any spat for the service companies.

Eldakka (profile) says:

Zero rating also is seeing support from companies that historically supported net neutrality (Google, Netflix) because these companies are benefiting from the additional traffic and ad eyeballs these programs send their direction.

The other benefit these companies receive is blocking competition. Buy paying a, probably small, or at least by these companies standards relatively small, amount of money to the ISP, they can block their start-up and other small competitors from competing with them because the small competitors can’t afford to be zero-rated. And best of all, it’s not GOOGLE’s or NETFLIX’s fault that start-ups can’t compete, can’t afford to be zero-rated, oh no, they can point the finger at the ISPs. it’s the ISPs fault for having zero-rating.

pjhenry1216 (profile) says:

How high is the barrier of entry?

If the algorithm is really so simple that it messes up, how high is the barrier of entry for small start-ups to Binge On? T-Mobile has stated absolutely anyone can join as long as they meet the technical requirements (ie: they have to be able to flag what is video and what isn’t). Does anyone have a more detailed explanation of the requirements to join BingeOn? T-Mobile doesn’t seem to be playing favorites and I think that’s one reason why customers aren’t absolutely against it. And its hard to be against it when the alternatives are worse. It kinda puts consumers between a rock and a hard place. In many scenarios its either choose “not T-Mobile” and pay more for less, but support net neutrality, or it’s choose T-Mobile, pay less for more, but cruise into gray net neutrality territory. Is there anyone here who is against Binge On on principle, is a T-Mobile customer, and has Binge On turned off?

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