T-Mobile Exempts Video Streams From Wireless Data Caps, Sets A Horrible Precedent

from the tap-dancing-around-neutrality dept

As rumored, T-Mobile has unveiled its latest attempt to kick the nation's wireless duopoly in the shins: exempting video services from the company's wireless broadband usage caps. According to the company's latest press release, T-Mobile customers will soon be able to stream video from 24 participating partners without it counting against user usage allotments. The initial list of participating companies includes most of the usual suspects, with T-Mobile stating any notable omissions (like YouTube and Amazon Prime Streaming) will be added in time.
It's an obvious extension of the company's existing Music Freedom effort, which makes select music services cap exempt. That effort caused a bit of a net neutrality kerfuffle at launch, given that initially only the most popular music services (dictated by T-Mobile customer votes) were cap exempt. As is the problem with most zero rating programs, that immediately creates an unlevel playing field for smaller nonprofits and independents that aren't big enough to get onto T-Mobile's radar and be whitelisted.

But with Binge On, T-Mobile was obviously more prepared for the inevitable net neutrality criticism that somehow caught the company off guard last time.

This is "not a net neutrality problem,” T-Mobile US CEO John Legere was quick to proclaim during the announcement. "It’s free, the providers don’t pay, the customers don't pay. Most importantly...you can shut it off, it’s complete customer choice," he added. Users who enable the service enjoy "optimized" 480p video streams that don't count against their caps. Turn it off, and users will view standard, higher-resolution streams that will erode their usage allotments. Legere also promised that any company "can meet our technical criteria" (said criteria hasn't yet been specified) can participate.

As far as zero rated programs go, it's not an apparently awful implementation, and it's going to appeal to a lot of customers. The problem continues to be precedent. The simple act of accepting wireless carriers as middlemen fit to determine what should or shouldn't be allowed past arbitrary usage restrictions paves the way for a very uncertain future, as the Verge rather hysterically worries:
"Binge On is bad because it gives T-Mobile too much power. It’s really that simple. And yes, it’s bad for net neutrality. If net neutrality has a core idea, it’s that regular people ought to be in charge of the internet — especially since the internet is mostly just people. That means companies like T-Mobile shouldn’t be picking winners and losers, even if customers appear to be winning in the short term. And there are definitely going to be losers. Legere insists that anybody who wants to be a part of Binge On can be, as long as they meet T-Mobile’s technical specifications. It’s not clear what those specifications are yet, though Legere used words like "optimized video" and "DVD quality or better." But that just sounds a lot like another type of managed network: cable television."
Consumer groups like Free Press also make the solid point that if you realize that caps are entirely arbitrary in the first place (untied to neither financial or network necessity), letting select services bypass them quickly loses its majesty:
"T-Mobile wants to suggest it’s saving customers by exempting video from its data caps. But we have to remember that T-Mobile imposed these caps in the first place. It’s a cheap sales trick: First you fabricate a problem for customers; then you make that problem go away and act like you’ve done them a huge favor."
And not everybody is as consumer-friendly and disruptive as T-Mobile. Allowing T-Mobile to inject itself into the data stream in this fashion encourages other wireless carriers to do so, and you can be damn certain that AT&T and Verizon's vision of zero rating will be notably more ham-fisted and problematic. Even if you admire T-Mobile's particular implementation of zero rating, small independents still have to reach out for T-Mobile's permission to be placed on the same, level playing field as their larger counterparts. Many may not even realize they're in such a position.

You'll probably see countless reports suggesting that T-Mobile's move is sure to "invite scrutiny by the FCC," but that's highly unlikely. T-Mobile's done a fantastic job of selling a potentially problematic precedent as consumer empowerment. Meanwhile, the FCC has made it abundantly clear it sees usage caps and zero rating as creative pricing experimentation, in the process opening the door wide to a lopsided vision of the Internet many will naively be cheering for.

Filed Under: broadband caps, data caps, john legere, net neutrality, video, zero rating
Companies: t-mobile


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  • icon
    Designerfx (profile), 10 Nov 2015 @ 3:40pm

    It's awful, but the devil's in the details

    So there's a lot of sneaky stuff going on here.

    What people don't realize is tmobile is capping the speeds at which users can access video. In order to make it "Free for everyone", they are doing things such as forcing video to 480p. Suddenly everyone doing what they did before will be confused why everything looks terrible.

    This is, in modern terms, this is explicitly a data cap - which coincidentally and magically happens to be "Turned on by default" in 5 days. Can you turn it off? Yes, but that's not an excuse. Just like what TMO does after you reach their data cap, but now they'll do it for certain services from day one instead of when you reach a data cap. So now, it's not "Capped at usage", it's "Capped for everyone!" (unless you turn it off).

    So network neutrality violation? You bet, and an explicit one at that.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 11 Nov 2015 @ 9:55am

      Re: It's awful, but the devil's in the details

      Effectively, content from participating providers will be streamed at less than 4G speeds while T-Mobile continues to advertise its 4G speeds.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 11 Nov 2015 @ 10:00am

        Re: Re: It's awful, but the devil's in the details

        People were worried about fast lanes. Who knew providers would be giving preferential treatment to slow lanes instead?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Nov 2015 @ 3:48pm

    People still use 480p???

    "Users who enable the service enjoy "optimized" 480p video streams that don't count against their caps."

    Who the hell still watches videos in 480p? I'm sorry, but I'm not going to even TRY watching a 30-60 min show on a 4-5 inch screen...1-2 mins cat videos, sure...but not full shows.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Nov 2015 @ 4:19pm

      Re: People still use 480p???

      I watch 480p on a 7" tablet all the time...while travelling.

      When i'm at home, I prefer 720p or higher on my 70" tv, but occasionally, I'll watch 480p if it's not something I really care about.

      For streaming, I rarely have a choice anyway, since I'm limited to a shitty DSL line.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Designerfx (profile), 10 Nov 2015 @ 5:02pm

        Re: Re: People still use 480p???

        This can't possibly be true. Your tablet is capable of more than 480p, because no tablet is 480x320.

        Whether you'll get downscaled because of awful wifi is entirely different, but there is zero truth to "I use 480p by choice".

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 10 Nov 2015 @ 5:06pm

          Re: Re: Re: People still use 480p???

          I download 480p video and load it on my tablet before leave - small videos are easier to transfer and store. This allows me to watch video on the plane while I travel.

          Also, if you've ever experienced shitty hotel wifi, you'd realize that 480p is the only thing that streams worth a damn.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 10 Nov 2015 @ 5:07pm

          Re: Re: Re: People still use 480p???

          Also, 480p is vertical resolution, not horizontal... you need to brush up on your understanding of video resolutions.

          DVD quality is basically ~480p.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Designerfx (profile), 10 Nov 2015 @ 8:16pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: People still use 480p???

            There's no lack of understanding. I wasn't meaning to imply 480p as 480x320, I was implying that tablets have a higher resolution than 480p and no even vaguely recent tablet is 480x320 - as in below 480p, aka SD material/vhs quality.

            DVD quality is fine on devices that are 480p, but look awful on devices that are 720p or 1080p, depending on size/resolution. Can it work? Yes. As noted, the original anon said they are storing 480p more than using them for hotel wifi - to act like a hotel can't manage to give you 1.5mb/s downstream would only be likely in a poorly mismanaged hotel and/or in the middle of nowhere - and probably nowhere else. Hotels may not be perfect but we're not talking about breaching 150KB/s. I can't imagine a lot of hotels can't manage that. In addition, tmobile's HSPA will easily pull far above 150KB/s (assuming you have signal).

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 10 Nov 2015 @ 8:39pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: People still use 480p???

              Wow...

              I often watch DVD-quality video on my 4k TV and I don't really find it all that terrible.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 11 Nov 2015 @ 7:19am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: People still use 480p???

            DVD is 480i.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Nov 2015 @ 3:50pm

    Zero rating is a terrible thing no matter whom is doing it, Comcast, T-Mobile, Facebook, or Wikipedia. Thank you Techdirt for being one of the few publications that recognizes this.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Nov 2015 @ 4:46pm

      Re:

      Zero-rating would be fine if it applied to everything. I liked the first part of the tweet: "With @TMobile - we want you to stop watching your data". It should have ended there.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jardinero1, 10 Nov 2015 @ 3:55pm

    There is no harm to any non-white listed service. In fact, non-white listed services receive a net benefit by exactly the amount a user would previously have had the white listed service usage applied to the their usage cap.

    For example, say I have a 10 gig a month plan and I consume Netflix, Pandora and two or three lesser media services. Without zero rating, they all count towards my bandwidth limit. If Pandora and Netflix are zero rated, then the bandwidth I would have consumed on those two services is now re-allocated to the lesser services. I can now consume more of the lesser services without breaking my usage cap.

    Peoples preferences for non-white listed services may increase if they know they now have more bandwidth to allocate to them. White listing some, but not all services, has the effect of increasing the size of the pie for everyone. It is not the ideal situation of no usage caps, but it is still preferred to a regime where every service falls under the cap.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Nov 2015 @ 4:18pm

      Re:

      More likely, people's preferences for white-listed services will increase instead, because they know it won't affect their caps.

      People are strange creatures, the notion of "free" triggers some kind of weird psychological fail in our brains.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Nov 2015 @ 4:57pm

      Re:

      Or, lots of people whose only significant data usage is streaming video services downgrade their 10 gigs a month to an el-cheapo 1 gig/mon plan to save money, and then watch the whitelisted services exclusively.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 10 Nov 2015 @ 8:26pm

      Re:

      No. Just... no. Zero-rating is not a boon to those that aren't 'blessed' with it, it's a bane.

      Without zero-rating, a big service and a small service in a given category(lets say movies) are on even footing. Which one the customer uses is going to be dependent on which offers what they want, how they want it, and the customer might jump between the two at times if what they want is split between the two services.

      With zero-rating on the other hand, suddenly whichever one manages the zero-rating deal has a huge advantage, while the other one is suffering a significant disadvantage.

      If the customer knows that using one service will not count towards the (artificially created, purely greed driven) cap, then they're going to use that one for whatever 'need' it satisfies(in this case, watching movies). The data 'freed up' by this is unlikely to be 'wasted' on another service that offers the same thing as the zero-rated one, it's going to be used on a service that offers something different, leaving the movie service without the 'blessing' of zero-rating in the dust.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 11 Nov 2015 @ 3:49am

      Re:

      Take off you blinders so you can see the harm.

      Many consumers are going to see what services are unlimited and only use those services. This puts the limited services at a disadvantage since people are less likely to use said service.

      It's also total BS to argue that any service can get put on the list. You think new startups have the resources to meet T-Mobile's technical specs, and Verizon, at&t, Comcast, WoW, charter, Rogers, boost, time Warner, Billy bobs rural WiFi, and the hundreds of other isps who decide to do the same shit?

      When you limit consumer choice you hurt the consumers and new services.

      The only people picking winners and losers should be consumers.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      kog999, 11 Nov 2015 @ 12:02pm

      Re:

      if you are going to use all of those services sure. but what if you have $10 a month to spend on a media streaming service, netflix doesn't use your data but
      "other service" does. all else being equal the best choice is going to be netflix.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Nov 2015 @ 3:58pm

    no porn?

    wtf tmobile... where's all the zero-rated porn streaming?

    This is BULLSHIT...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Pronounce (profile), 10 Nov 2015 @ 4:26pm

    T-Mobile's Dress Hiking Maneuver

    If you're broke down on the side of the road then show a little leg to get some attention.

    T-Mobile's customers are reaping the rewards of Deutsche Telekom's order to John Legere to get T-Mobile sold.

    Legere's going to keep making T-Mobile sweeter and sweeter until they're bought out. Once that happens being a customer isn't going to be a fun experience anymore.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Nov 2015 @ 4:28pm

    The big problem is that they've exempted only Mainstream Media content, mostly entertainment channels, and much of which is already available on cable TV. The main advantage of the internet is the availability of content outside the walled garden of your country's MSM, something that virtually every government in the world frowns upon. Regardless of how much T-Mobile expands the whitelist, it's a safe bet that they will not be exempting video streams from Al Jazeera or RT in the foreseeable future.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    That One Other Not So Random Guy, 10 Nov 2015 @ 5:26pm

    With @TMobile - we want you to stop watching your data, and start watching your shows. Introducing #BingeOn.
    -
    Then give us reasonably priced unlimited data plans... John.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Isma'il, 10 Nov 2015 @ 10:46pm

    The way I see it........

    Is that data caps are evil, of course. However if T-Mobile starts yet another perk that catches on with those who are looking to switch, they'll find themselves with an influx of new customers and the other big 3 will have to follow suit in one way or another. That's exactly what happened with retail installment pricing on T-Mobile phones--get your phone on monthly payments and get a price-break on your plan that you keep even after the phone is paid off. Now the rest of the industry has followed suit.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    scatman09 (profile), 11 Nov 2015 @ 5:05am

    data caps...ransomware...same thing

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Mason Wheeler (profile), 11 Nov 2015 @ 7:05am

    T-Mobile wants to suggest it’s saving customers by exempting video from its data caps. But we have to remember that T-Mobile imposed these caps in the first place. It’s a cheap sales trick: First you fabricate a problem for customers; then you make that problem go away and act like you’ve done them a huge favor.

    As I've said before, would anyone think Superman was a hero for rescuing a bunch of people from a burning building, if he had used his heat vision to start the fire?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Constantine A. M., 11 Nov 2015 @ 12:08pm

    true unlimited 1Mbps+ for video, yet still 0.1Mbps for other traffic?

    The big problem I have with this is that whilst they'll be giving away something like at least 1 Mbps to Netflix et al, all unlimited and never ever throttled, regardless of any of the data buckets, the rest of us will continue to be throttled at a mere 0.1Mbps once the buckets are up.

    There's no way throttling everyone at 128 kbps is okay all the while certain chosen vendors are getting some 10× more.

    This is very much unlike the Music Freedom, where everyone was already getting unlimited 128kbps, so, it used to be just a matter of whether or not your buckets were tapped and how long they were useful for, not a matter of fast vs. slow lanes.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous employee..., 11 Nov 2015 @ 3:06pm

    I will start by disclosing that I work for T-mobile so I may be a bit biased here. I watched the webcast yesterday and one of the details that everyone has missed here is that t-mobile stayed that they will be publishing the technical requirements or BingeOn. While right now we don't know what is required, they aren't planning on keeping it a secret for long.

    All that being said, I'm a huge supporter of net neutrality and this move does concern me. As a customer, of course, I love it. And as an employee I mostly like it. It will be interesting to see how it evolves long term as well as watching how the duidiodts respond.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ishould (profile), 11 Nov 2015 @ 4:40pm

    Data caps

    The problem with not having data caps is, while 99% of users won't abuse the system, the other 1% will. With tmobile's unlimited data, the hotspot is still limited to 5GB. It's ridiculously easy to bypass this and download Terabytes worth of data per month. At peak hours this will cause other tmobile users' data in the area to slow.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 11 Nov 2015 @ 7:20pm

      Re: Data caps

      At which point they track down the 'super-user' and do something about them individually, not screw everyone else over and just so happen to include the super-user in the bunch.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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