T-Mobile Backs Off Added Fee For HD Streaming As Unlimited Data Wars Heat Up

from the almost-what-competition-looks-like dept

While the U.S. wireless industry isn't quite as competitive as it's portrayed as (non-price competition is generally the law of the land), T-Mobile has still managed to disrupt the sector with a crazy idea: giving users what they want. That was again made evident this week when Verizon was forced to bring back sort-of unlimited data after spending the last several years telling consumers they didn't really want such simple, straightforward plans. Verizon's long-standing belief that it can tell consumers what they're supposed to want took a notable blow this week by any measure.

Shortly after Verizon announced it was returning to unlimited data, T-Mobile once again upped the ante, announcing it would no longer be charging an extra fee to stream HD video over the company's LTE Network. According to the announcement, T-Mobile not only stopped charging a premium for HD quality (the de-prioritization of which you may recall T-Mobile lied was happening at several points), but also eased up on the restrictions surrounding tethering (using your phone as a modem).

In a statement, T-Mobile CEO John Legere hinted at studies showing that Verizon has nearly lost its network size and speed edge over T-Mobile, which the company had long been using to justify its refusal to more seriously compete:

"I don’t blame Verizon for caving. They just lost their network advantage, and they know it … and more importantly, more and more customers know it. Their back’s against the wall,” said John Legere, president and CEO at T-Mobile. “This is what the Un-carrier does—drag the carriers kicking and screaming into the future. Next up, we’re going to force them to include monthly taxes and fees. Mark my words."

Granted the term "unlimited" is still being abused here, since you may find your connection throttled (technically "de-prioritized") after 28 gigabytes of consumption on T-Mobile's network, or 22 gigabytes of consumption on Verizon Wireless. And U.S. residents will still probably wind up paying significantly more money at slower speeds than most developed nations. Meanwhile, T-Mobile tells Ars Technica that video on the T-Mobile network is still throttled to 1.5 Mbps by default, with the onus placed on customers to remember to enable HD video manually or it reverts to the default, de-prioritized state:

"T-Mobile responded to our question about HD video day passes by saying, "All customers have to do to get HD is go into the app or online to turn on. It’s very easy." Customers still have to enable HD video every 24 hours or it reverts to 480p, a T-Mobile spokesperson told Ars via e-mail. However, the company's Twitter support account says it only will have to be enabled once per month. T-Mobile's press release doesn't clear things up."

Even with caveats, this is at least providing a vague resemblance of what wireless competition is supposed to look like. Given the number of customers T-Mobile is now hoovering up from AT&T, it may also force AT&T to revisit its own opposition to unlimited data plans (currently only available if you subscribe to both AT&T wireless and DirecTV). So even though the industry still struggles with the dictionary definition of unlimited, the fact T-Mobile is pushing AT&T and Verizon to actually try to compete is certainly a good thing.

The problem is that competition in the wireless space is viciously fickle, and by and large most of AT&T and Verizon's promotions remain somewhat theatrical in nature when it comes to actually lowering your overall price once various fees are factored in. And should the rumored T-Mobile and Sprint merger be approved by regulators, you can be fairly sure that even this level of more superficial competition may not be around for long.

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  • icon
    Judd Sandage (profile), 14 Feb 2017 @ 3:54pm

    The changed it again

    Seems they updated it yet again to say you have to opt in to HD video now, but once you do that's it, no recurring need to opt in, after quite a few complaints they decided this would be best... I think I might finally change my plan now, this whole unlimited* thing is annoying though.

    https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2017/02/t-mobile-getting-rid-of-its-most-annoy ing-limitation-on-hd-video/?comments=1

    *except the video you want to watch, that's limited.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Feb 2017 @ 3:55pm

    Poor Sprint. Barely even a foot note in the article. They really need to get their act together. It has been years, close to a decade, since anyone seriously talked about their network quality being top tier.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Feb 2017 @ 5:48pm

    De-prioritized sure makes it sound like they're kicking you off to the slow lane.

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

    • icon
      Manabi (profile), 14 Feb 2017 @ 6:18pm


      Sort of. If the tower you're connected to is congested, then your packets get lower priority and you will see slower speeds. But if it's not congested, the lower priority doesn't mean much and you'll still get fast speeds. It's a much fairer way to do things than a straight slow lane.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Feb 2017 @ 6:40pm

    How do they know the quality?

    How can they tell HD video from SD? Are there still video sites using unencrypted connections, or is TMO guessing based on metadata (hostname+datarate)? If the latter, I wonder whether something like domain fronting would get around it: connect to gmail.com, establish encryption, then send "Host: youtube.com".

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 15 Feb 2017 @ 12:17am

      Re: How do they know the quality?

      As I recall they just throttled everything to 1.5mbps after the first few seconds of file transfer. This would give you full speed file transfer for smallish, web-browsing-type files, but any kind of streaming or large file download would get throttled, purely by the nature of the network activity.
      That's just how I understood it though. I'm in the UK on a 3G, low-data plan by choice though, so I never really followed the hard details of the T-Mobile throttling silliness.

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

      • identicon
        Michael, 17 Feb 2017 @ 8:54am

        Re: Re: How do they know the quality?

        It's a bit more subtle than that, but you are basically right. T-Mobile is throttling everything that looks remotely like video and expecting the video provider to automatically downgrade video when it detects the slower speed. Most do, and T-Mobile has a program in which they work with content providers to do this more efficiently, but the system is far from perfect.

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

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