T-Mobile Is Throttling Video for Unlimited Streamers, the EFF Says
Last year T-Mobile announced Binge On, a service that allowed customers to stream unlimited amounts of video from select partners, including Netflix and HBO, without having those streams count against their data limits. It seemed like a good deal, especially for low-income customers who couldn’t afford bigger data plans. But it turns out there may be a big catch: If you use Binge On, T-Mobile slows download and streaming speeds for all video, including streams from services that aren’t covered by the Binge On service, such as YouTube.
That’s the conclusion of a report published today by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The digital advocacy organization tried streaming and downloading videos from sites that are not affiliated with T-Mobile’s Binge On by using a smartphone on T-Mobile’s wireless network and found that their download speeds were significantly slower than they were when downloading and streaming the same content over an encrypted connection, so that T-Mobile couldn’t tell what type of content the testers were accessing. In other words, T-Mobile appears to be deliberately slowing any and all video content on its network.
T-Mobile did not respond to our request for comment and clarification, but according to the EFF, the company did confirm the organization’s findings.
T-Mobile has always made clear that video streams covered by Binge On would be limited to 480p resolution, which is about DVD quality but below HDTV quality, which is at least 720p resolution. Any legal video streaming service is free to join Binge On, T-Mobile CEO John Legere said during a launch event last year, so long as they meet the technical requirements. This suggested that T-Mobile either required partners to provide only 480p streams to Binge On customers, or that T-Mobile itself would act as a proxy, translating higher-quality streams into 480p. But the EFF’s findings suggest that rather than providing lower quality video to Binge On customers, T-Mobile is simply slowing down video streams. YouTube, like many other video streaming sites, will automatically downgrade the quality of a stream for users with slower connections. This could explain why Binge On users are seeing lower quality streams even on sites that don’t participate in the program. According to the EFF, if a you try to access a site that doesn’t automatically downgrade the quality of a video to match the user’s connection speed, you’re still stuck trying to stream that video over a slow connection, leading to choppy video performance as long as Binge On is activitated on your account.
Data Without Limits
Google has been complaining about T-Mobile’s apparent practice since last month, when company representatives told The Wall Street Journal that T-Mobile was throttling YouTube. At the time, T-Mobile claimed that “throttling” was an inaccurate way to describe the company’s behavior. “We aren’t slowing down YouTube or any other site,” a T-Mobile spokesperson told DSL Reports last month. “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 a less flattering ‘downgraded’ is also accurate.”
However, based on the EFF’s findings, it appears that T-Mobile is in fact throttling video speeds. If the organization’s report is correct, T-Mobile is only “optimizing” video in-so-far as it is degrading download speeds to match the requirements for 480p video streams.
Last year the Federal Communications Commission passed new network neutrality regulations that prohibit internet service providers from prioritizing or de-prioritizing certain types of internet traffic. But the rules don’t bar providers from exempting some traffic from data caps. T-Mobile has argued that Binge On and its audio streaming service Music Freedom don’t violate network neutrality, because the services don’t charge partners to participate in the programs, and any legal service can join. But if T-Mobile is indeed throttling all video content on its network, it may be running afoul of the FCC’s rules. Its one remaining defense may be that Binge On is an optional service. Although customers are automatically opted into the service, Binge On can be deactivated any time. At any rate, the FCC is set to meet with T-Mobile and other service providers next week to discuss the legality of so-called “zero rated” services.
Beyond the network neutrality issues, T-Mobile’s services raise the question of why partners need to opt in to Binge On. If T-Mobile can automatically detect when customers are accessing video content, then why not simply exempt all video content from a data cap, instead of limiting it only to its partners? But the biggest question all of this raises is why caps are necessary at all if it’s possible to offer unlimited music streaming and DVD-quality video to its customers. Carriers argue that data caps make their service more fair by allowing customers who use little data to pay less than whose who use lots. But those same carriers have also admitted that data-hungry users are outliers, and that heavy users don’t cause network congestion that adversely affects other users.
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