There’s an old adage in politics that if you have to spend time explaining yourself, it likely means you’re losing. T-Mobile, which for the past couple of years has been aggressively and relentlessly playing offense against its rival carriers, now finds itself in the unfamiliar situation of having to explain itself thanks to the controversy surrounding its Binge On initiative.
Binge On, in case you need a refresher, lets users watch as much video as they want from select apps over T-Mobile’s network if they leave on a setting that ensures the video quality stays at 480p. The idea is that users can watch all their favorite shows from Netflix, Hulu, and other popular apps on their phones without having that data count against their monthly limits as long as they’re willing to sacrifice HD quality.
On the surface, this initiative initially raised some concerns about network neutrality, although not as big as the ones that are being raised by AT&T and Verizon’s “sponsored data” schemes in which companies can pay the carriers money to have data used by their services exempt from usage limits. As the weeks have gone by, however, the controversy around the way T-Mobile manages Binge On video data on its network has grown.
In the first place, T-Mobile lowers the quality of all video running over its network to 480p for all users who have the Binge On setting switched on. YouTube, which is not yet taking part in Binge On, raised a stink about this and ask why T-Mobile should lower the quality of its videos when they still count against users’ monthly data limits.
Second, the Electronic Frontier Foundation this week argued that T-Mobile really is throttling all video traffic over its network when Binge On is enabled, despite the “Un-carrier’s” claims to the contrary. When you have Binge On enabled, video traffic to your phone is limited to 1.5Mbps to ensure that the resolution stays at 480p. T-Mobile might argue this is simply “optimizing” video quality but it’s also limiting the speed at which a certain kind of data is transferring to your phone even when there isn’t any network congestion.
Finally, some critics have argued that T-Mobile should have made the program opt-in instead of opt-0ut for subscribers so they’d have to make an active choice before agreed to live with lower quality video on their phones.
Here’s the bottom line for me: Even though I don’t think Binge On is destroying the open Internet, I do think it shows the potential problems that can come when a carrier inserts itself in between the end user and their favorite online services.
If T-Mobile had simply implemented straight monthly data limits and decided to just deliver bits to customers as they requested them, it wouldn’t be facing as much controversy as it is right now. Yes, most of us find data caps on wireless data services annoying but they’re at least pretty straightforward. When carriers start making little carve-outs to exempt some services from those caps, it’s getting in between customers and the online services they want to use. This, in turn, can create big headaches for carriers that they didn’t anticipate.
While I don’t think Binge On is especially nefarious in any way, I do think T-Mobile will have to make some changes to it in the wake of some of the criticism it’s received. And I suspect if given the chance to start over again, John Legere and company would make some different choices about how they decided to roll out Binge On.