While T-Mobile isn't without its faults (like its opposition to net neutrality, or the time its CEO mocked the EFF), there's little doubt that T-Mobile has been a good thing for the wireless industry. The company has managed to drag the industry kicking and screaming in an overall positive direction, including the elimination of the carrier-subsidized handset model, the elimination of annoying hidden fees, and the recent return to more popular unlimited data options. And its brash CEO John Legere, while sometimes teetering into absurd caricature, has at least managed to bring a sense of industry to a traditionally droll telecom sector.
And while T-Mobile had been mocking AT&T and Verizon's forays into video as "distractions," the company this week strongly hinted that it may bring a little bit of disruption to a sector that needs it most. Both Legere and T-Mobile COO Mike Sievert made numerous comments during their earnings call this week making it pretty obvious they wanted to test the market's reaction to the idea of some kind of T-Mobile video service:
"Talk about a poster child for an industry that has really kind of ignored customers and ignored customer cares and gouged at every corner,” Legere said of the pay-TV market during T-Mobile’s earnings call Tuesday. “Clearly, I salivate when I think about the possibilities of changing some of those (video) industries. And frankly, I’m fascinated with how little AT&T has done since they spent the mother lode buying DirecTV, and pretty much have let it sit on the side, and still be an old, crappy linear TV that they bundle weakly with their unlimited offer, so maybe more to come."
Subtle. Legere didn't get into specifics about how T-Mobile would enter the sector, but one possibility remains some kind of M&A with Dish Network, which has plenty of TV assets and a long-harbored desire to jump into the wireless sector (Dish has been not-so-quietly hoarding wireless spectrum for a long while). Like Legere, Sievert also spent more than a little time making fun of the cable sector, which continues to sport some of the lowest customer satisfaction ratings in any industry in America:
"The data on this is really clear. The cable industry is statistically one of the most unloved industries in the history of the consumer economy. So, obviously, it’s ripe for innovation in this area,” T-Mobile COO Mike Sievert said on the call. “I’ll tell you one thing, in 2017 we will reach the point where people have more screen time on mobile devices than on any other kind of screen, that’s really something incredible when it comes to watching their video. So we’ll see how this convergence unfolds, but in it we’re where the industry is going, not where it’s coming from, and we’ve got a brand that really resonates with people and possibly could resonate in an industry that’s even more maligned than we found ours four years ago when we got here."
A Dish M&A is one of the more palatable consolidation possibilities facing the telecom sector under what's expected to be a dramatically more M&A-friendly Trump administration. T-Mobile is also a rumored acquisition target for Comcast or Charter Communications, neither of which would be likely to continue T-Mobile's foray into price competition or disruption. Similarly, a Sprint acquisition of T-Mobile would reduce the number of overall wireless carriers in the space, reducing competition and potentially putting T-Mobile's disruptive run to an ignominious end.
While T-Mobile has certainly brought some welcome changes to the wireless industry (including a CEO with a rare sense of humor), the consumer-friendly brand they've established has consistently fallen short when it comes to one major subject: net neutrality. The company lobbied and fought consistently against the reclassification of ISPs as common carriers and the creation of net neutrality rules. The operator then pissed off much of the internet when CEO John Legere mocked the EFF for raising questions about the misleading nature of the company's zero rating and throttling practices.
This week, the company again made its opposition to net neutrality clear. Speaking at a media and telecom conference, T-Mobile CFO Braxton Carter applauded the incoming President-elect Donald Trump, whose telecom transition team members have all made it abundantly clear that eliminating net neutrality rules and gutting the FCC as a consumer watchdog will be among their top priorities. This is, T-Mobile claims, going to be a real "positive" for the industry:
"It’s hard to imagine, with the way the election turned out, that we’re not going to have an environment, from several aspects, that is not going to be more positive for my industry,” Carter said in comments this morning at the 44th Annual Global Media and Communications Conference. “I think that it’s very clear that there’s going to be less regulation. And less regulation—regulation often destroys innovation and value creation."
Except of course that net neutrality rules exist to protect innovation from entrenched telecom monopolies. But Carter doubles down, insisting specifically that the elimination of net neutrality rules should provide "opportunity" for "significant innovation":
"Carter also specifically addressed the issue of net neutrality, arguing that the reversal of the FCC’s Open Internet rules would pave the way for additional innovation in the space. “It would provide the opportunity for significant innovation and differentiation,” Carter said of a telecom industry without net neutrality rules. “You could do some very interesting things” without net neutrality."
Carter appears excited about "deregulation" because it might lower T-Mobile's tax burden and increase its chances of merging or being acquired. But his excitement is shortsighted and fairly typical for executives in the telecom sector.
The problem is that in telecom, "deregulation" (of the sort promised by folks like Trump advisor Jeff Eisenach) doesn't actually mean straight deregulation. What it means in practice is pay-to-play regulation, where the biggest and most politically powerful companies (usually AT&T or Comcast) get to literally write the law. That's why you'll often see these folks breathlessly proclaim they adore "open markets," yet turn a blind eye when AT&T or Comcast write protectionist state law that hamstrings local communities and keeps competitors at bay.
In telecom, "deregulation" is all-too-frequently code for "let's let AT&T and Comcast decide what's best." That was the preferred mantra of former FCC boss Michael Powell (now the cable industry's top lobbyist), who also shared Jeffrey Eisenach as a transition team member. The end result of that administration was "deregulation" that wound up empowering AT&T and Comcast, making broadband less competitive and customer service worse than ever. We've apparently decided to collectively forget that.
As such, when your biggest competitor is AT&T, cheering for the one regulator that has tried to ensure a level playing field for smaller competitors seems a bit myopic. Remember it was the FCC and DOJ that blocked AT&T's attempted acquisition of T-Mobile, which ultimately resulted in T-Mobile being a more innovative, fierce competitor than ever before. Again, every indication coming from Trump's telecom transition team and the GOP is that they hope to completely defund and defang the FCC. That means more mergers, less competition, less innovation, and more net neutrality violations than ever before.
T-Mobile has repeatedly tried to downplay its opposition to net neutrality by claiming that the company is on the "right side of history" as it fights neutrality rules with broad, bipartisan support among consumers. But the company's enthusiastic support for the gutting of nearly all consumer protections in the broadband space make it clear, once again, the brand's dedication to consumers and "innovation" is entirely and unsurprisingly superficial.
The 51-page report by van Schewick details the problems with Binge On in great detail, noting that it falls afoul of the FCC's transparency rules, that it unfairly picks winners and losers and that it harms competition. The core argument:
Binge On undermines the core vision of net neutrality: Internet service providers (ISPs) that
connect us to the Internet should not act as gatekeepers that pick winners and losers online by
favoring some applications over others. By exempting Binge On video from using customers’ data
plans, T-Mobile is favoring video from the providers it adds to Binge On over other video.
T-Mobile says that it does not intend to become a gatekeeper on the Internet: It says Binge On is
open to all legal video streaming providers at no cost, as long as they can meet some “simple
technical requirements.” The idea is that any discriminatory effects of Binge On disappear as more
providers join the program. However, the technical requirements published on T-Mobile’s website
are substantial. They categorically exclude providers that use the User Datagram Protocol (UDP),
making it impossible for innovative providers such as YouTube to join. They discriminate against
providers that use encryption, a practice that is becoming the industry standard. While some
providers can join easily, a significant number will need to work with T-Mobile to determine
whether their service can be part of Binge On. Many will have to invest time and resources to
adapt their service to T-Mobile’s systems. The smaller the provider, the longer it will likely take
for T-Mobile to get to it.
The result: Binge On allows some providers to join easily and creates lasting barriers for others,
especially small players, non-commercial providers, and start-ups. As such, the program harms
competition, user choice, free expression, and innovation.
What's perhaps even more interesting is that van Schewick includes in the report alternatives that T-Mobile could have adopted that would have created similar plans that actually benefit consumers without messing up net neutrality:
Binge on in its current form violates net neutrality. However, T-Mobile could offer alternative
innovative plans that benefit customers and allow the ISP to compete without violating net
neutrality. For example, T-Mobile could offer customers a zero-rated low-bandwidth mode at the
same speed as Binge On, but contrary to Binge On, customers would be able to use this mode to
watch video or do anything else online. It would be their choice.
Alternatively, T-Mobile could allow customers unlimited access to the entire Internet after
customers reach their cap, just at a slower speed – the same speed currently offered through Binge
On. After reaching their cap, customers could watch video or do anything else online; again it
would be their choice. This option offers customers truly unlimited video, unlike Binge On.
Contrary to advertising, Binge On video is limited: Customers can watch video included in the
program only until they reach their monthly data cap through other Internet uses that are not zerorated.
As such, advertising Binge On as “unlimited” video might violate the FCC’s transparency
rule, which requires ISPs to accurately describe their service. In contrast, this alternative option
would allow T-Mobile to offer “unlimited video streaming” that stands up to its name and respects
Finally, T-Mobile could increase the monthly data caps on its capped plans to account for the
average amount of video that people are watching. Customers could use that additional bandwidth
to do anything online, including watching video. Again, it would be their choice. All of these
alternative plans are entirely consistent with net neutrality.
Earlier today we wrote about the latest misleading claims from John Legere and T-Mobile about its BingeOn program. I've seen some confusion some of the discussions about this -- some of it thanks to Legere's misleading claims -- so I wanted to go through exactly what T-Mobile appears to be doing and why it's problematic. Also, with that, I wanted to highlight the key part of the FCC's net neutrality rules regarding throttling, and the one single paragraph that T-Mobile appears to be banking on to protect it from getting slapped around.
First, let's be clear: T-Mobile wants to pretend that this is a "semantic" dispute about what it's doing, but that's bullshit. From the beginning the company has been flat out lying about its actions. That may get it in trouble in two ways -- first for violating the bright-line "no throttling" rules and for violating the corresponding transparency rules as well.
So what is T-Mobile doing: if you're a T-Mobile customer and you visit a page to stream or download video (whether or not it's a BingeOn partner), T-Mobile is automatically slowing down your bandwidth to about 1.5 Mbps. That's the throttling bit. What T-Mobile is telling people is that it's "optimizing" the video to a lower resolution. That may be true with some partners, but it's not true of non-partners, especially ones that are encrypted, such as YouTube, where T-Mobile has no way of "optimizing" the video. Instead, even with encrypted streams, since the metadata is still there, it can tell that you're, say, suddenly getting a lot of data from YouTube, and then it automatically slows down the bandwidth.
T-Mobile is hoping that at the server end, YouTube or any other video provider will see this slow bandwidth and say "oh, there's a narrow pipe here, so we should degrade the video down to lower resolution. So, if there's any "optimization" going on, it's actually happening at the server end after T-Mobile has basically tricked them into thinking there's a slow connection. But, in many cases, that doesn't happen, and the end result is not optimized video, or faster video, or even (as T-Mobile keeps claiming) getting to view 3x the amount of data under existing data caps. Instead, it's just the same video at the same resolution... but comes in much more slowly with lots of buffering.
So, to repeat: don't fall for John Legere's spin. The "proprietary technology" he keeps touting is not optimizing non-partner video. It is doing one thing and one thing only: and that's throttling the video.
Now, on to the FCC's rules. Let's look at what the rules pretty clearly say:
A person engaged in the provision of broadband Internet access service, insofar as such
person is so engaged, shall not impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of
Internet content, application, or service, or use of a non-harmful device, subject to
reasonable network management.
Throughout the FCC's statement on the rules, it notes that this is a bright line rule.
With the no-throttling rule, we ban conduct that is not outright blocking, but inhibits the
delivery of particular content, applications, or services, or particular classes of content, applications, or
services. Likewise, we prohibit conduct that impairs or degrades lawful traffic to a non-harmful device
or class of devices. We interpret this prohibition to include, for example, any conduct by a broadband
Internet access service provider that impairs, degrades, slows down, or renders effectively unusable
particular content, services, applications, or devices, that is not reasonable network management. For
purposes of this rule, the meaning of “content, applications, and services” has the same as the meaning
given to this phrase in the no-blocking rule. Like the no-blocking rule, broadband providers may not
impose a fee on edge providers to avoid having the edge providers’ content, service, or application
throttled. Further, transfers of unlawful content or unlawful transfers of content are not protected by the
no-throttling rule. We will consider potential violations of the no-throttling rule under the enforcement
provisions outlined below.
We find that a prohibition on throttling is as necessary as a rule prohibiting blocking.
Without an equally strong no-throttling rule, parties note that the no-blocking rule will not be as effective
because broadband providers might otherwise engage in conduct that harms the open Internet but falls
short of outright blocking. For example, the record notes the existence of numerous practices that
broadband providers can engage in to degrade an end user’s experience.
From that, it seems fairly clear that what T-Mobile is doing violates the no throttling rule. It is slowing down a class of content that is not for anything having to do with reasonable network management.
But T-Mobile keeps harping on the fact that this is "the user's choice" and even claimed throttling is only throttling if the user has no choice. That's because of the next paragraph in the rules -- and this seems to be the entire crux of T-Mobile's argument for why it's not violating the rules:
Because our no-throttling rule addresses instances in which a broadband provider targets
particular content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices, it does not address a practice of slowing
down an end user’s connection to the Internet based on a choice made by the end user. For instance, a
broadband provider may offer a data plan in which a subscriber receives a set amount of data at one speed
tier and any remaining data at a lower tier. If the Commission were concerned about the particulars of a
data plan, it could review it under the no-unreasonable interference/disadvantage standard. In contrast,
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. We
note that user-selected data plans with reduced speeds must comply with our transparency rule, such that
the limitations of the plan are clearly and accurately communicated to the subscriber.
It's this paragraph that is going to be scrutinized like crazy. T-Mobile insists that because you have the choice to turn BingeOn off, that means that this is "based on a choice made by the end user" and thus the "no throttling" rule doesn't apply.
That seems like a difficult argument to sustain, given that T-Mobile made the initial choice for all of its users. So that initial choice was not made by the user, even if they can (through a convoluted process) turn it off. Separately, the second part that I bolded above appears to totally undermine T-Mobile's argument. It is degrading a class of applications (all video applications) and thus, the FCC rules note, it violates the bright-line no-throttling rule.
There is, separately, the issue of transparency. T-Mobile claims that it was transparent about all of this, but I don't think that's actually true. As we've covered, it really buried and hid the fact that BingeOn applied to non-partner videos, and did so in a confusing way. It also lied about the optimization and the claim that it couldn't even do anything to YouTube videos at the very time it was absolutely throttling them. That's not very transparent. On top of that, by continually falsely claiming that this was "optimization" not "throttling" and even claiming that it would "speed up" videos, rather than slow them down, I do wonder how the company can claim it was truly transparent.
On that front, T-Mobile has been relying on claims that it emailed and texted customers about the move. I have looked and I have received no such emails or texts. In fact, here are all the texts I've received from T-Mobile since August. Note the lack of any text about BingeOn.
Of course, who knows how the FCC will eventually deal with this, but the claim that the company is optimizing, rather than throttling is flat out wrong. It's a lie. The claim that it's respecting the net neutrality rules by letting you opt-out is questionable at best, and most likely false, as the consumer made no initial choice for the throttling. It's moves like these that raise serious questions about just how "consumer friendly" T-Mobile is really being, and which are seriously undermining trust in the company.
The big story of last week was T-Mobile CEO John Legere's meltdown over people calling out the bullshit claims about BingeOn "optimizing" mobile video when the truth is that it was simply throttling all video traffic (partners and non partners alike). Things got even worse when Legere decided to attack EFF and suggest that it was being paid to discredit BingeOn. The simple fact remains, however, that T-Mobile is throttling video streams (and downloads).
Legere briefly went quiet about all of this, but on Monday came out again with yet another statement in the form of an "Open Letter to Consumers about Binge On" which is at least a little more honest, but is still mostly misleading bullshit -- the very thing T-Mobile has built its recent reputation on avoiding.
We invented Binge On to provide customers with an easy and effective way to stretch their data bucket. Knowing that the number one (and climbing) use of data out there is video, it was obviously the natural place to focus. Binge On is like an economy button built into a new car to save gas, and it’s a benefit that customers got the minute we launched, to use it as much as they want to. Period.
Again that sounds good but is totally misleading. First of all, it's T-Mobile that sets the data buckets in the first place. So relieving consumers of the burden that T-Mobile itself placed on consumers is not a consumer-friendly move. It's punching someone and then claiming you're being nice by offering them a hand to get them off the ground. If you start the anti-consumer practice, it's not pro-consumer to roll back a tiny part of it.
Binge On is a FREE benefit given to all T-Mobile customers. It is and always has been a feature that helps you stretch your data bucket by optimizing ALL of your video for your mobile devices.
If this were truly a "benefit" then why does it also apply to unlimited accounts (like mine)? Unlimited account holders don't need or want this "benefit" (and it's not really much of a benefit as we'll get to).
We use our proprietary techniques to attempt to detectall video, determine its source, identify whether it should be FREE and finally adjust all streams for a smaller/handheld device. (Most video streams come in at incredibly high resolution rates that are barely detectable by the human eye on small device screens and this is where the data in plans is wasted). The result is that the data in your bucket is stretched by delivering streamed video in DVD quality - 480p or better (whether you have a 2GB, 6GB or 10GB plan etc.) so your data lasts longer. Putting aside the 38+ services for which we provide FREE data for video through Binge On, as discussed below – this “stretching” of your data bucket is estimated to allow you to watch UP TO 3X MORE VIDEO from your data plan than before. This is a huge step forward.
Again, it's worth remembering that when T-Mobile launched this supposedly consumer-friendly offering, they completely hid the fact that it applied to all video, implying strongly that it only applied to partners. In fact, the company's CTO argued that it was not even possible to identify many YouTube videos -- a claim that turned out to be one of the many lies T-Mobile has spread over this mess.
Second, T-Mobile keeps claiming that most users can't tell the difference between 480p videos and higher quality HD videos, but that's bullshit. In many cases the difference in quality is quite obvious. And, again, if this was all about having your data "last longer" there would be no reason at all to turn it on for unlimited account holders.
Also note that T-Mobile is being a bit misleading here, as its original marketing on BingeOn noted that the free video streaming did not apply to accounts that had less than 3GB on their caps:
Next up, Legere continues to pretend that this is clearly a beneficial service that his customers wanted, despite many, many users saying that they wanted no such thing:
As with virtually all of our Un-carrier benefits, we immediately gave it to everyone! First we reached out to all of our customers via email and SMS message, and told them all about the new functionality that was coming their way. Then we turned it on, for everyone! So if you are a T-Mobile customer – you already have Binge On!
Again, this makes absolutely no sense for unlimited accounts, and the fact that it's not opt-in is just silly:
We strive to default all of our customer benefits to “ON.” We don’t like to make customers dig around to find great new benefits -- that is something a traditional carrier would do when they really hope you, the consumer, won’t take any action. Can you imagine the disappointment, if people saw our TV commercials about Binge On, then went to watch 10 hours of video expecting it to be free, and only THEN learned that they needed to go into their settings to activate this new benefit? That’s how the Carriers would do it, but not T-Mobile. Everyone has it from day 1, period.
So instead of making customers dig around to find this (which is not a "great new benefit"), they make customers dig around to find how to turn it off because they don't want it. That's exactly how the big carriers do things. And, once again, there's simply no reason why it should ever be turned on for unlimited data users.
But here’s the thing, and this is one of the reasons that Binge On is a VERY “pro” net neutrality capability -- you can turn it on and off in your MyTMobile account – whenever you want. Turn it on and off at will. Customers are in control. Not T-Mobile. Not content providers. Customers. At all times.
This is what T-Mobile is banking on as the reason why it's not violating the bright line rule against throttling in the FCC's net neutrality rules -- because there's a small "out" in the rules, saying that the no throttling rule doesn't apply to choices made by the end user to throttle traffic. Of course, that's assuming a situation where the end user proactively decides to slow down certain types of traffic, not where it's forced upon them, and there's a convoluted process to opt-out of it.
Either way none of this addresses the actual concerns raised by many T-Mobile subscribers: T-Mobile lied. It said that it was "optimizing" the video when the truth is that it was just slowing down the video. It doesn't change the fact that T-Mobile was far from transparent in explaining that this throttling (not optimizing) applied to all video, even with non-partner video. Finally, T-Mobile lied in insisting that this "optimization" would make videos load faster, when the reality is that for many video services it neither saves any data (the full file is downloaded, just slower), nor does it speed things up. Instead, it makes it buffer when there's plenty of available bandwidth.
That's what people are complaining about and T-Mobile ignores all of it, continuing to insist that BingeOn is nothing but a consumer friendly offering.
In the end, Legere gives a weak apology to the EFF that again fails to recognize why so many people took issue with his characterization of the EFF ("who the fuck are you? and who pays you?") and pretends that it's just about a difference of opinion:
I will however apologize for offending EFF and its supporters. Just because we don’t completely agree on all aspects of Binge On doesn’t mean I don’t see how they fight for consumers. We both agree that it is important to protect consumers' rights and to give consumers value. We have that in common, so more power to them. As I mentioned last week, we look forward to sitting down and talking with the EFF and that is a step we will definitely take. Unfortunately, my color commentary from last week is now drowning out the real value of Binge On – so hopefully this letter will help make that clear again.
The problem wasn't "offending" EFF, it was that EFF did a good job exposing what T-Mobile is actually doing, and rather than responding to them, you freaked out, attacked them and their credibility and acted like they were some nobody shills. That's not offensive, it's stupid and raises serious questions about T-Mobile's intentions.
Again, what is the "value" of BingeOn, other than throttling video down? Legere still keeps insisting things that aren't really true at all. It's too bad, because Legere had built up T-Mobile to be customer friendly and his reaction to this whole situation has done serious damage to that reputation.
Well, this has really turned into quite a week for T-Mobile CEO John Legere, huh? First, his lies about BingeOn throttling were exposed. Then he doubled down on the lie insisting that BingeOn wasn't throttling despite clear evidence that it is. Then, he attacked EFF for exposing his lie. All the meanwhile, T-Mobile spokespeople were confirming that the company is, absolutely, slowing down all video traffic.
In light of recent events and comments made by your CEO, John Legere, we have decided to halt our participation in Binge On and disable our traffic shaping rules for the time being. As per the agreement, please consider this 24 hours notice that 4Stream.TV will no longer participate in the program.
As net neutrality supporters and EFF Members, we encourage you to be more honest and transparent about the issue and develop a program that we can be proud to participate in.
Kudos to Patrick Hampson and Aaron Zufall for making that decision.
Of course... the unfortunate truth, as we now know from all of this, is that even once they've decided not to participate in the program it doesn't change the fact that their videos will get throttled.
The T-Mobile throttling saga is getting worse. Their PR people have totally stopped responding to me after I pointed out how they were lying about their claims to be "optimizing" video when they were really throttling. And then the company's CEO, John Legere insisted that claims that T-Mobile was "throttling" were bullshit (and then, bizarrely attacked EFF).
T-Mobile customers who activate the company’s controversial Binge On video service will experience downgraded internet connection speeds when viewing videos on YouTube or other sites that don’t take part in Binge On, a T-Mobile spokesperson confirmed today. They’ll also experience slower speeds when trying to download video files for offline use from websites that do not participate in Binge On, at least until the customer deactivates the service.
Of course, even that statement is wrong. It's not for "customers who activate" Binge On. T-Mobile automatically activated it for everyone, and then let you call in to customer service to deactivate it.
But the way that T-Mobile tries to insist that this is not throttling is now to argue that because users can turn it off that's why it's not throttling. Yesterday we noted that tricky sleight of mouth when Legere added an unnecessary clause to the definition of throttling. Here's John Legere's statement yesterday:
What throttling is is slowing down data and removing customer control. Let me be clear. BingeOn is neither of those things.
And again, there are two major problems with this statement: (1) As his own company's spokesperson is now admitting, yes, they absolutely do slow down the data and (2) "removing customer control" has nothing to do with the definition of throttling. Especially when they made the initial choice for all customers.
And, just to add to this, let me remind you what a T-Mobile spokesperson told me via email just a couple of weeks ago:
Using the term “throttle” is misleading. We aren’t slowing down YouTube or any other site. In fact, because video is optimized for mobile devices, streaming from these sites should be just as fast, if not faster than before. A better phrase is “mobile optimized” or “lower resolution.”
And yet now the company is admitting that they are, in fact, slowing down YouTube, not "optimizing" it or making the resolution lower. As I said at the time, T-Mobile is flat out lying. And now two statements from the company directly contradict each other, and the company's CEO is still insisting that the company isn't doing what the company admits it's doing.
I've seen some corporate snafu meltdowns before, but this is reaching epic levels -- and that's bad news for a company that had spent so much time building up a reputation as a "straight shooter." Good reputations are hard to build, but easy to let slip away....
I kinda feel bad for the PR people at T-Mobile. This morning, CEO John Legere put out a completely bullshit statement pretending to respond to the accusations that its BingeOn program is throttling online video. It didn't address the actual issues, made statements that were clearly false, and then accused people questioning the program of being "jerks." That seemed weird, considering the widespread concerns about all of this combined with T-Mobile's attempt to brand itself as the only consumer friendly mobile service provider.
But, if you really wanted to undermine the idea that you're a "consumer-first" operation that "cares about the open internet" and had to pick one group that you shouldn't go off on an unhinged rant about, you'd probably pick EFF. The group, which has been around forever, is somewhat famous for its willingness to fight for the public's digital rights, and unwillingness to compromise its beliefs. It has regularly sued or challenged numerous big companies that have undermined privacy and the open internet, including AT&T and Google.
I've emailed T-Mobile's PR people to find out if Legere really doesn't know what EFF is, or if he really thinks that EFF is somehow a front group for a company attacking T-Mobile. I doubt I'll hear much of a response. But if Legere wanted to totally undermine his pro-consumer position in a single sentence, I don't think he could have picked a much worse one than what he actually came out with.
from the they're-wrong-about-the-throttling,-maybe-not-on-the-jerk-thing dept
On Monday we wrote about T-Mobile flat out lying about the nature of its BingeOn mobile video service -- and after a couple of days of silence, the company has come out swinging -- by lying some more and weirdly attacking the people who have accurately portrayed the problems of the service. As a quick reminder, the company launched this service a few months ago, where the company claimed two things (though didn't make it entirely clear how separate these two things were): (1) that the company would not count data for streaming video for certain "partner" companies and (2) that it would be "optimizing" video for all users (though through a convoluted process, you could opt-out).
There were a bunch of problems with this, starting with the fact that favoring some partner traffic over others to exempt it from a cap (i.e., zero rating) is a sketchy way to backdoor in net neutrality violations. But, the bigger issue was that almost everything about T-Mobile's announcement implied that it was only "partner" video that was being "optimized" while the reality was that they were doing it for any video they could find (even downloaded, not streamed). The biggest problem of all, however, was that the video was not being "optimized" but throttled by slowing down video.
Once the throttling was called out, T-Mobile went on a weird PR campaign, flat out lying, and saying that what they were doing was "optimizing" not throttling and that it would make videos stream faster and save users data. However, as we pointed out, that's blatantly false. Videos from YouTube, for example, were encrypted, meaning that T-Mobile had no way to "optimize" it, and tests from EFF proved pretty conclusively that the only thing T-Mobile was doing was slowing connection speeds down to 1.5 Mbps when it sensed video downloads of any kind (so not even streaming), and that actually meant that the full amount of data was going through in many cases, rather than an "optimized" file. EFF even got T-Mobile to admit that this was all they were doing.
So that makes the response of T-Mobile execs yesterday and today totally baffling because rather than actually respond to the charges, they've doubled down on the blatant lying, suggesting that either it's executives have no idea what the company is actually doing, or that they are purposely lying to their users, which isn't exactly the "uncarrier" way that the company likes to promote.
We'll start with the big cheese himself, CEO John Legere, whose claim to fame is how "edgy" he is as a big company CEO. He's now released a statement and a video that are in typical Legere outspoken fashion -- but it's full of blatant lies.
The video and the typed statement are fairly similar, but Legere adds some extra color in the video version.
Let's parse some of the statements. I'll mostly be using the ones from the written statement as they're easier to cut and paste, rather than transcribe, but a few from the video are worth calling out directly.
I’ve seen and heard enough comments and headlines this week about our Binge On video service that it’s time to set the record straight. There are groups out there confusing consumers and questioning the choices that we fight so hard to give our customers. Clearly we have very different views of how customers get to make their choices -- or even if they’re allowed to have choices at all! It’s bewildering …so I want to talk about this.
Of course, this is a nice, but misleading attempt to frame the conversation. No one is complaining about "giving choices to consumers." They're complaining about (1) misleading consumers and (2) providing a worse overall experience by throttling which (3) directly violates the the FCC's prohibition on throttling. The next part I'm taking from the video itself, rather than the printed statement, because Legere goes much further in the video, including the curses, which magically don't show up in the printed version:
There are people out there saying we’re “throttling.” That's a game of semantics and it's bullshit! That's not what we're doing. Really! What throttling is is slowing down data and removing customer control. Let me be clear. BingeOn is neither of those things.
This is flat out wrong and suggests Legere doesn't even know the details of his own service. As the EFF's tests proved (and the fact that YouTube videos are encrypted should make clear) T-Mobile is absolutely slowing down data. In fact, EFF got T-Mobile to confirm this, so Legere claiming it's "bullshit" is... well... bullshit!
But he's playing some tricky word games here, claiming that throttling is not just slowing down data, but also removing customer control. That's (1) not true and (2) also misleading. For all of Legere and T-Mobile's talk about "giving more options to consumers" or whatever, they're totally leaving out the fact that they automatically turned this on for all users without a clear explanation as to what was happening, leading to multiple consumer complaints about how their streaming videos were no longer functioning properly -- even for users on unlimited data plans.
Customer choice? Sure they could "opt-out" after through a convoluted process that many did not understand. But T-Mobile made the choice for all its users, rather than providing a choice for its customers to make.
Mobile customers don’t always want or need giant heavy data files. So we built technology to optimize for mobile screens and stream at a bitrate designed to stretch your mobile data consumption. You get the same quality of video as watching a DVD, but use only 1/3 as much data (or, of course, NO data used when it’s a Binge On content provider!). That's not throttling. That's a huge benefit.
Again, this is both wrong and misleading. There is no optimization. Legere is lying. They are 100% slowing down the throughput on video when they sense it. The EFF's tests prove as much. Yes, for some video providers when they sense lower bandwidth, they will downgrade the resolution, but that's the video provider optimizing, not T-Mobile. T-Mobile is 100% throttling, and hoping that the video provider downgrades the video.
But in cases where that doesn't happen then it doesn't save any data at all (the EFF test confirmed that the full video file still comes through, just slower).
Also, note the play on words "You get the same quality of video as watching a DVD." At first you think he's saying that you get the same video quality overall, but he's not. He's saying as a DVD, at 480p, which is lower than the 1080p that many HD videos are offered at. And that's what many people are complaining about -- that they'd like to watch videos at the full 1080p, but T-Mobile made the choice that they can't do that unless they go through a convoluted process to turn this off.
Rather than respond to any of this, Legere then claims that "special interest groups" and Google are doing this.... "to get headlines."
So why are special interest groups -- and even Google! -- offended by this? Why are they trying to characterize this as a bad thing? I think they may be using Net Neutrality as a platform to get into the news.
Wait, what? Google -- the same Google that absolutely refused to say anything publicly at all about net neutrality for years during the debate suddenly wants to get into the news by jumping on the net neutrality bandwagon? Does Legere have any idea how ridiculous that sounds? And it's not like Google has a problem getting into the news. And what about EFF and others? Does he really think they need to get extra news coverage?
But note the facts here: at no point does Legere respond to the actual charges leveled against the company. He then concludes by yelling at everyone for daring to complain about this:
At T-Mobile we're giving you more video. More choice. And a powerful new choice in how you want your video delivered. What's not to love? We give customers more choices and these jerks are complaining, who the hell do they think they are? What gives them the right to dictate what my customers, or any wireless consumer can choose for themselves?
Nice. I'm part of the contingent complaining about this and I'm also a T-Mobile customer... and the CEO just called me a jerk while telling me he's fighting for his customers? Really now?
And again this whole statement is blatantly misleading. The "choice" was made by T-Mobile for all users, and getting out of it involves a convoluted process that most don't understand and where none of this was made clear to end users. Beyond violating the FCC's "no throttling" rule, I wonder if it also violates the FCC's transparency rules as well, in which they are required to be much more upfront about how the data is being treated.
Also, the statement above is from the video where we're described as "jerks," but in the written version it leaves out the "jerks" claim, but also includes the following bit mocking YouTube for letting users choose to change the resolution on videos:
YouTube complained about Binge On, yet at the same time they claim they provide choice to customers on the resolution of their video. So it's ok for THEM to give customers choice but not for US to give our customers a choice? Hmmm. I seriously don't get it.
But that's bullshit also. YouTube's choice option there is a clear pulldown on every video shown, so that a user just needs to click on the video their watching and set the resolution. T-Mobile's is a process that's not clear at all, with some users reporting they had to call in and get T-Mobile customer service to turn BingeOn off for their account. To compare the two situations is completely bonkers.
As far as I can tell, Legere either doesn't understand what his own company is doing technically, or knows and is purposely misrepresenting it. Neither of those look good and go against the entire "uncarrier" concept they keep pitching. I'd expect better as a T-Mobile customer than being told that I'm a "jerk" for pointing this out.
And it appears he's not the only one among senior execs at T-Mobile who still don't realize what their own company is doing. On Wednesday at a Citigroup conference, T-Mobile's Chief Operating Officer Mike Sievert
spewed some more nonsense suggesting he, too, has no idea what his own company is doing:
At a Citigroup investor conference Wednesday, T-Mobile executives shot back, saying YouTube’s stance is “absurd.” YouTube is owned by Alphabet Inc. “We are kind of dumbfounded, that a company like YouTube would think that adding this choice would somehow be a bad thing,” said T-Mobile Chief Operating Officer Mike Sievert. He said YouTube hasn’t “done the work yet to become part of the free service.”
Taken at face value, that comment makes no sense. If YouTube hasn't done the work yet to become a part of the free service than why the fuck is T-Mobile slowing down its videos? YouTube wasn't complaining about "adding this choice." YouTube was complaining about direct throttling of video content by T-Mobile, in clear violation of the FCC's prohibition on throttling.
Sievert and Legere both don't seem to understand (1) what YouTube and users are complaining about or (2) what his own company is doing. That's... troubling, given that these are the CEO and COO of the company. It really seems like T-Mobile execs might want to spend some time talking to its tech team to understand the fact that the only thing T-Mobile is doing to video is throttling it down to 1.5 Mbps, rather than any actual "optimization" before spewing more nonsense and calling their own customers "jerks." And, they might want to realize that their claim that this is all "bullshit" is actually complete bullshit. And that their bullshit may very well violate the FCC's rules.
Last year we noted that for being such a supposedly cool CEO, T-Mobile's John Legere seemed utterly clueless on the subject of net neutrality. Not only did the CEO claim that Title II and new net neutrality rules would "kill innovation" (tip: that didn't happen), he seemed totally oblivious to the bad precedent set by the company's zero rating efforts. Those efforts began with T-Mobile's decision to let some music services bypass user usage caps, which as we've discussed at great length puts smaller companies and non-profits at a distinct disadvantage.
But since our regulators (and much of the press and public) seem clueless to the harm of zero rating so far, T-Mobile has decided to expand these efforts. Last week the company started cap-exempting video services, and now the company has announced it's bringing zero rating to the company's prepaid wireless brand (MetroPCS) as well. Now the company's prepaid and postpaid (monthly billed) customers both will find that thirty-three of the biggest music stream services no longer count against their usage caps (yeah, sorry, small independent radio streaming stations too little to get on T-Mobile's whitelisted radar).
As usual, the move was framed as a huge boon to consumers:
“Once again we are setting MetroPCS apart from the rest of the pack in ways that no one else will,” said John Legere, president and CEO of T-Mobile US. “MetroPCS is the #1 brand in prepaid because we keep giving customers more of what they want, and today that means adding Music Unlimited and Data Maximizer to the list! Their data will last longer than ever before without ridiculous penalty fees or trickery!"
And like regulators, most of the telecom beat covering T-Mobile has been oblivious to the bad precedent set. They don't quite yet understand that letting a wireless carrier suddenly decide what traffic gets whitelisted from already-arbitrary usage restrictions sets the stage for a total upheaval of how the Internet works now. They also don't understand that if it's ok for T-Mobile to do this, it's ok for a company like AT&T to do something similar -- and AT&T's version is going to be notably worse. The Los Angeles Times, for example, struggles to see where the problem lies:
"Besides, there's nothing in the FCC's neutrality rules that bars data caps, which enable carriers to segment the market and charge higher prices to those who put a higher value on bandwidth. Binge On represents another reduction in the pain caused by data caps, which seems like an unalloyed good thing for consumers."
But you're not reducing a "pain point" by creating an arbitrary data cap, then letting some content bypass that cap -- you're just getting in the way of a healthy Internet ecosystem. And just because the FCC lacked the foresight to prohibit zero rating in our net neutrality rules (unlike Chile, Norway, Netherlands, Finland, Iceland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta and Japan, which all bar zero rating), that doesn't mean this isn't a potentially horrible idea that's going to change the face of the Internet. It's very clear that the perils of zero rating are something we're eager to experience first hand here in the States, applauding our own "great fortune" all the way.