The more we learn about T-Mobile’s “Binge On” video streaming program, the more it seems to violate one of the basic tenets of the open internet: the idea that service providers shouldn’t have any control over what their connections are used to access.
A new investigation by the Electronic Frontier Foundation has found that T-Mobile is throttling data speeds for videos from services that are not Binge On participants.
Launched in November, Binge On allows customers to watch streaming video from a handful of services without having that data count against monthly data caps. So-called “zero rating” of services—letting users watch unlimited video on Netflix and HBO, while counting video from YouTube against data caps, for instance—is perhaps an end run around the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules. Few customers have made much ado about the program, however—free data is free data, right?
Well, not exactly. Videos from Binge On providers are capped at 480p resolution, presumably to keep data consumption low. Last month, we learned YouTube videos (which are not part of Binge On) are also capped at 480p resolution for T-Mobile customers who have Binge On enabled.
Monday, an EFF investigation found that all video is being throttled for Binge On customers, whether it comes from a Binge On provider or not. Binge On is enabled by default, which means most T-Mobile customers suddenly started getting all video on their phones in the lower 480p resolution while using mobile data unless they specifically opted out.
The EFF uploaded a video to a server it owns and then, using a Binge On-enabled phone, performed the following tests:
“Each test was done over an HTTP connection, which allowed T-Mobile’s network to observe the content of the connection and perform ‘optimization’ (labeled ‘Binge On’ in the graph below), and over an HTTPS connection, which prevented T-Mobile’s network from observing the content of the connection, thus representing behavior without any sort of Binge-On-related optimization (‘Normal’),” the EFF’s Jeremy Gillula wrote in a blog post explaining the experiment.
Here are the results:
As you can see, Binge On customers have their video data speeds capped at 1.5 Mbps, even if the video comes from a provider that isn’t part of the Binge On program.
“In the absence of higher priority traffic, videos should stream at the same throughput as any other content. But that's not the case,” Gillula wrote. “It’s pretty obvious that throttling all traffic based on application type definitely violates the principles of net neutrality.”
It’s hard to say specifically which net neutrality rules the program and its throttling may or may not violate, because this is uncharted territory. The FCC said last month it’s looking into the details of the program (but chairman Tom Wheeler did initially call Binge On “highly innovative.”)
But even without getting into the complex legal questions here, there are a few ways in which indiscriminately throttling all video is harmful to the idea of an open internet.
- A carrier is artificially controlling user experience for business reasons
T-Mobile has specific guidelines that are necessary for streaming services to tick off if it wants to participate in the program. Among these, the videos that use HTTPS encryption “require additional T‐Mobile assessment of the technical feasibility to qualify for inclusion in the offering,” and some protocols that prevent video stream detection are excluded altogether. By requiring providers to jump through specific hoops to participate, it is controlling perhaps the business and privacy decisions of individual video providers.
- It makes streaming some non Binge On video impossible.
The EFF post found that T-Mobile isn’t actually “optimizing” any video traffic for Binge On users, it’s merely throttling it. Not all video players on all websites have the capability to down-res a video from, for example, 1080p to 480p. That means some videos on some websites using some players must be watched at their original resolution (due to T-Mobile’s guidelines, these will inherently not be Binge On services). Even though this hypothetical 1080p video would count against both a Binge On customer’s data cap and a non Binge On customer’s data cap, one without Binge On will stream the 1080p video at a speed as fast as the network can go; one with Binge On will stream it at 1.5 Mbps, a speed that makes it arguably un-streamable.
- Binge On users get “more” data but a worse experience.
Binge On users will get slower video data across the board, those who opt out will get the full speed of whatever the network can handle.
- There’s a penalty on providers that don’t opt-in.
This is explored more thoroughly in my earlier blog post on zero rating, but those who agree to follow T-Mobile’s guidelines will likely see an eventual increase in traffic from T-Mobile customers, those who don’t agree to follow them will see less and less as users fear butting up against data caps. Also, by throttling video from providers that don’t participate in the Binge On program, T-Mobile is effectively punishing companies that choose not to partner with it.
These are exactly the kind of thing that the FCC’s net neutrality rules were designed to prevent, and it’s why it’s disingenuous for T-Mobile to pitch Binge On as something that is purely a play to make its customers happy. T-Mobile did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
What we’re left with, then, is a cell phone service provider setting the specific rules for content creators to get their content in front of customers most easily, which is specifically the issue the net neutrality debate was fought over.