T-Mobile, Sprint Tap Dance Over, Under, And Around Net Neutrality
from the bad-precedent dept
For some time now T-Mobile has been accused of violating net neutrality by exempting the nation’s biggest video services from its usage caps, and throttling all video on the network by default to 1.5 Mbps or 480p. Net neutrality advocates have repeatedly warned that giving some content or companies a leg up and fiddling with service quality sets a horrible precedent, and research has shown T-Mobile’s system to be unreliable and exploitable. Still, T-Mobile has so far received applause from many regulators, media outlets and customers operating under the belief consumers are getting something for free.
As such, however bad the precedent being set here, there’s no real political pressure on the FCC to act since consumers are effectively applauding what many believe to be a net neutrality violation. The FCC’s net neutrality rules don’t specifically prohibit zero rating, something we’ve long argued opens the door to creative abuses of net neutrality to thunderous applause, which is effectively what’s happening here. The rules do require the FCC to explore whether zero rating is anti-competitive on a “case by case” basis, but so far, outside of a few letters, the FCC doesn’t seem particularly pressed to take action.
Last week, T-Mobile introduced a new wrinkle to the entire saga by unveiling a new plan named T-Mobile One. Under T-Mobile One, users get “unlimited” data (technicaly 26 GB, after which you’re throttled to 128 kbps), text and voice for $70 per month. But under this new plan, users find all video services throttled by default to 1.5 Mbps or 480p. If you want to stream video at any higher rate, you’ll need to pony up an additional $25 per month. Groups like the EFF were quick to argue that the new plans still violate net neutrality:
“From what we?ve read thus far, it seems like T-Mobile?s new plan to charge its customers extra to not throttle video runs directly afoul of the principle of net neutrality,” said EFF senior staff technologist Jeremy Gillula.
Right, but violating net neutrality principles and net neutrality rules is not the same thing. It’s generally believed the FCC didn’t crack down on T-Mobile’s original plans because the FCC’s Open Internet Order (pdf) not only didn’t ban zero rating, but it stated that some throttling is ok if it’s “a choice made by the end user.” Because users could opt out of T-Mobile programs Binge On and Music Freedom, T-Mobile had creatively managed to inhabit an area not really outlawed by the agency’s net neutrality rules.
But the EFF argues elsewhere that T-Mobile’s decision to specifically discriminate against a particular type of traffic (in this case video) could ultimately violate the FCC’s net neutrality rules:
…Gillula argues that the throttling of all video might violate the rule, despite the option to pay for high-speed video. He pointed to a sentence later in the same paragraph that says, “if a broadband provider degraded the delivery of a particular application (e.g., a disfavored VoIP service) or class of application (e.g., all VoIP applications), it would violate the bright-line no-throttling rule.”
“If you just substitute ‘video’ in for ‘VoIP,’ it’s pretty clear that the FCC’s intent was to prevent discriminatory throttling, even if the user could pay to avoid it,” Gillula told Ars. “In other words, the FCC (and EFF) are just fine with ISPs offering different tiers of service, as long as the tiers don’t discriminate against different types of content. But that’s precisely what T-Mobile is doing here?discriminating against data based on its content.”
Given past statements one gets the sense that the FCC isn’t all too worried about the obvious, problematic impact usage caps and zero rating may have on the open Internet. But we’re quickly getting to the point where the FCC needs to at least help detail where the line is drawn, one way or another. T-Mobile’s experiments last week resulted in Sprint unveiling similar “unlimited” data plans of their own, which also throttle all video to 480p by default unless you pay a premium for higher resolution. But you’ll note Sprint goes even further:
Unlimited Freedom utilizes optimization for streaming video, gaming and music, delivering a high-quality viewing experience for mobile devices with video streams of up to 480p resolution, gaming up to 2mbps and music streams at extreme quality of up to 500kbps.
If you’ll pause with me at the very top of this long and slippery slope and look down, folks with even the faintest tea leaf reading ability should be able to envision one possible future where all broadband access is fragmented and fractured in just this fashion, users paying more or less for varying qualities of different content and services. This was, if you’ll recall, the sort of thing net neutrality rules were designed to help us avoid. T-Mobile opposed Title II and real net neutrality rules for obvious reasons, and groups like the EFF (quite correctly) worry T-Mobile is now happily chipping away at the very foundation of an open internet…to thunderous public applause.