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.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2016 @ 8:53am

    How are they even throttling that video. Aren't the biggest video streaming sites using HTTPS encryption now? If they are throttling those, it must mean those companies agreed to have their videos throttled like this, and have some kind of Man-in-the-Middle cooperation with the ISPs.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2016 @ 11:45am

      Re:

      HTTPS does not hide the site a user is visiting, it only hides what specific page or video is being accessed. Mobile companies are still able to throttle the connection of anyone who accesses youtube and other streaming sites.

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

    • icon
      Mike Masnick (profile), 22 Aug 2016 @ 12:01pm

      Re:

      How are they even throttling that video. Aren't the biggest video streaming sites using HTTPS encryption now? If they are throttling those, it must mean those companies agreed to have their videos throttled like this, and have some kind of Man-in-the-Middle cooperation with the ISPs.

      Two things: 1. many of the major video sites partnered with T-Mo on this. 2. T-mo claims that even with HTTPS they can figure out what's *likely* to be video traffic based on site (which they can see) and amount of data flow (which makes sense).

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

      • icon
        Almost Anonymous (profile), 22 Aug 2016 @ 1:27pm

        Re: Re:

        Agreed and agreed, but what about "gaming"? Wtf qualifies as "gaming"? Running WoW? Overwatch? And they are going to throttle "gaming" data to 2mbps? (Not that I imagine many games use nearly that amount, but still, you could have a PC + XBox + mobile game going on in the normal household quite easily...)

        I agree that typically music and video will be easily identifiable, but I have huge (YUGE) questions about the "gaming" cap.

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

      • icon
        That One Guy (profile), 22 Aug 2016 @ 8:14pm

        Re: Re:

        Two things: 1. many of the major video sites partnered with T-Mo on this.

        Kinda conflicted on that. On the one hand zero-rating is an idea that needs to die as quickly as possible, as it hands the ISP's far more power than they should have in choosing winners and losers, which makes multiple sites agreeing to it a seriously bad idea as it just lends more credibility to it.

        On the other hand I suddenly have a wicked desire for T-Mobile to show them exactly why handing over that power to another company is a really bad idea, say by T-Mobile sending over a letter informing them that if they want to keep their zero-rating status there's going to be a few changes to the contract they signed.

        Maybe if they get burned badly enough they'll realize just what a bad decision they made, and if not, well at least I get that schadenfreude itch scratched. Small consolation, but it would be something at least.

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

  • icon
    Machin Shin (profile), 22 Aug 2016 @ 8:58am

    The question that has come to my mind is, Will they throttle a VPN connection? I for one am rather tempted to find out.

    I kind of hate the idea of switching to them and appearing like I support their abuse of net neutrality. At the same time though, it is making me sick that I give money to Verizon.

    Really very frustrating that with both phone and internet I seem to be faced with the options of give money to companies I despise or live without phone and internet.

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

    • icon
      Kal Zekdor (profile), 22 Aug 2016 @ 9:43am

      Re:

      Yeah, there's just no good option. You either give money to one of the big four directly, or you go with an MVNO and give money to them indirectly. Since every single one of these companies is intent on dismantling any semblance of Net Neutrality, it's practically impossible to avoid funding them.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2016 @ 9:44am

      Re:

      The problem with the VPN solution is that you run into caps issues. The options they are offering is accept our zero rating, or suffer from caps or overage charges, hence opting out puts the customer at a greater disadvantage than accepting throttled video.

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

      • icon
        Machin Shin (profile), 22 Aug 2016 @ 10:11am

        Re: Re:

        Using my VPN though means I get to stream video in HD for that 26 gigs before I am then throttled. All this without paying an extra $25 a month.

        From what I have seen it also looks like the throttling is only done if your on a busy tower. So even after that 26 gigs you likely will still have good speeds a lot of the time. This certainly beats the I think 6 gigs I currently share with 3 other people.

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

  • identicon
    bob, 22 Aug 2016 @ 10:00am

    I don think the FCC thought that customers would be willing to pay money for slower speeds with respect to just video or music etc. Really we just need a whole lot of new start-ups that really turn the industry on its head or completely remove private business from running the networks.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2016 @ 10:08am

    T-Mobile: See you have a choice, take it up the ass or take it up the ass without lube.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2016 @ 10:42am

      Re:

      T-Mobile: See you have a choice, take it up the ass* or take it up the ass without lube.


      * lube for the take it up the ass plan available for an extra fee, use of non T-Mobile lube will result in an even larger additional fee.

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

      • identicon
        Brian Miller, 22 Aug 2016 @ 12:22pm

        Re: Re:

        You've got plenty of other choices, including Verizon, AT&T, and a whole huge collection of MVNOs.

        You're just angry that you can't socialize the costs of your consumption on other people who don't consume as much as you do.

        You want five grandmas to pay $100 a month, when they each consume $5 a month of service, so that you can consume $500 worth of service for $100.

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

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2016 @ 1:15pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          that's disingenuous.

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

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2016 @ 2:01pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Spot the shrill

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

        • icon
          That One Guy (profile), 22 Aug 2016 @ 2:14pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          You've got plenty of other choices, including Verizon, AT&T, and a whole huge collection of MVNOs.

          Assuming they even offer service in his/her area, and assuming those companies haven't yet realized that with the likes of Comcast, T-Mobile and Sprint gouging their customers without repercussions they can too, leading to them implementing similar 'customer friendly plans'.

          You want five grandmas to pay $100 a month, when they each consume $5 a month of service, so that you can consume $500 worth of service for $100.

          So said grandmas are currently only paying $5 a month now, right? No? No price drops, everyone is just paying more?

          Yeah, the 'They use more* so they should have to pay more' argument falls rather flat once you realize that the prices only ever go up, never down. If the justification being employed is that 'more use = higher cost', similar to pricing for electricity and water, then the reverse should hold true as well, but it doesn't, exposing this as a blatant and unnecessary cash-grab.

          Also I'd love to hear about how someone case consume '$500 worth of service for $100'. If a company is selling a connection with a speed of 'up to X', then whether you use it to the absolute maximum or barely use it at all you're still getting what you paid for, no more, no less.

          If companies want to advertise their service by monthly data allotment rather than speed they can do that, in which case you might have a point if someone was able to game the system in such a way as to get more than they paid for, but so long as they advertise their service by speed then it doesn't matter how much someone uses it, they're still not abusing or overusing their connection. If the networks can't handle the company's users actually using them at the speed advertised then that's on the company for false advertising by claiming that they could actually offer those speeds, not the customers for believing them.

          *'More' in this case being 'for the connection that they paid for'.

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

  • identicon
    Brian Miller, 22 Aug 2016 @ 12:17pm

    Depends, really...

    Do we want a Marxist Internet ala "Net Neutrality," where the rule is "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need," or do we want a competitive internet that allows people to buy the best-fit solution for them, with a price tag that reflects usage?

    Net Neutrality is especially bizarre, in that it's socialism for the rich. Basically, the 2% who stream terrabytes of torrents or watch gigabytes of bandwidth-hogging HD video want to socialize the real costs of their usage.

    There are three different possibilities here:

    1) Aggressive "network neutrality," with an inflexible "one size fits all" mandate, which will make the Internet roughly the equivalent of Sprint's 3G network circa 2010 -- congested to hell with no profits (and thus no investment);

    2) Today's competitive approach, where people can choose the wireless carrier and plan their want -- and opt for someone other than T-Mobile or Sprint if they don't like those options. (Of course, AT&T and Verizon will charge a LOT of data to the bandwidth hogs who want a socialized internet, which is why the Net Neutrality comrades hate this option);

    3) Some magical approach in which scarce and expensive commodities like bandwidth, wireless spectrum and network capacity disappear, and nobody has to pay for access because it's free. (This is the world that the remainder of the "Network Neutrality" people imagine -- the 21st century equivalent of the communist utopia of old).

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

    • icon
      Kal Zekdor (profile), 22 Aug 2016 @ 2:43pm

      Re: Depends, really...

      What the fuck are you talking about? Ok, first off, Net Neutrality has fuck all to do with data caps. If an ISP wants to sell their service by the gigabyte, so that heavy users pay more, that's prefectly in line with Net Neutrality principles. I mean, it's still stupid*, but it's "neutral".

      What violates Net Neutrality principles is the practice of "zero-rating" certain classes of data. This skews the marketplace and gives gatekeepers undue influence. As far as Net Neutrality goes, limiting data is fine, even throttling the connection is fine, but only doing that for certain classes of data is not. Zero-rating video, for example, incentivizes users to consume video instead of other data, which goes against the principles of the Internet as an open and unbiased communication medium.

      It's got fuck all to do with "bandwidth hogs".



      *There's nearly zero utilization cost associated with an amount of data transferred over a network, merely a tiny amount of electricity, on the order of a few cents per gigabyte, if that. Network costs are all about capacity. RoI increases with average utilization. Customer satisfaction is decreased by network degradation (whether arbitrary or a result of network conditions). As such, it makes the most sense to allow customers unrestricted utilization of the network so long as capacity remains. Data Caps result in under-utilized networks, which, without preverse incentives such as overage charges, results in a net loss for the ISP.

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

    • icon
      Mike Masnick (profile), 22 Aug 2016 @ 6:02pm

      Re: Depends, really...

      Do we want a Marxist Internet ala "Net Neutrality," where the rule is "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,"

      This is not what net neutrality is.

      or do we want a competitive internet that allows people to buy the best-fit solution for them, with a price tag that reflects usage?

      That's not what the alternative is.

      Aggressive "network neutrality," with an inflexible "one size fits all" mandate, which will make the Internet roughly the equivalent of Sprint's 3G network circa 2010 -- congested to hell with no profits (and thus no investment);

      This is not one of the options here and certainly not what's happening with the current net neutrality rules.

      Today's competitive approach, where people can choose the wireless carrier and plan their want -- and opt for someone other than T-Mobile or Sprint if they don't like those options. (Of course, AT&T and Verizon will charge a LOT of data to the bandwidth hogs who want a socialized internet, which is why the Net Neutrality comrades hate this option);

      Except that the carriers all have their plans basically in lock step with each other (notice how Sprint and T-Mobile announced their new, very similar, plans within an hour of one another?). This is not real competition.

      And, no, the issues that we're discussing here are not about data caps and bandwidth hogs. But about favoring certain kinds of traffic (and being able to charge for that).

      Some magical approach in which scarce and expensive commodities like bandwidth, wireless spectrum and network capacity disappear, and nobody has to pay for access because it's free. (This is the world that the remainder of the "Network Neutrality" people imagine -- the 21st century equivalent of the communist utopia of old).

      Yeah, no one is saying that.

      You don't look very smart when you make up what you think the other side says. It just makes you look totally clueless.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2016 @ 12:26pm

    People are selfish

    I talked about this to someone who understood why it was bad. But it was currently benefiting him so he didn't care. People will not take a stand on principle anymore.

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

    • identicon
      Brian Miller, 22 Aug 2016 @ 12:53pm

      Re: People are selfish

      Presumably, consuming way more than you pay for and having others pick up the bill -- as Net Neutrality mandates -- isn't selfish?

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2016 @ 1:16pm

        Re: Re: People are selfish

        that too is disingenuous.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2016 @ 10:20am

        Re: Re: People are selfish

        Everyone else is using just "up to" their limit? No extra left over to balance it out?

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

      • icon
        nasch (profile), 23 Aug 2016 @ 6:25pm

        Re: Re: People are selfish

        Presumably, consuming way more than you pay for and having others pick up the bill -- as Net Neutrality mandates -- isn't selfish?

        Leaving aside your complete misunderstanding of net neutrality, which has been addressed above, how can I possibly use more than I pay for?

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


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