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T-Mobile is fixing the wireless industry by hurting the open Internet

Published Nov 11th, 2015 9:48AM EST
T-Mobile Binge On Net Neutrality
Image: Asa Mathat | Re/code

As a diehard Batman fan, T-Mobile CEO John Legere will appreciate this simile: Right now T-Mobile reminds me a little bit of the Joker in the first Tim Burton Batman movie tossing out free money to the people of Gotham only so he can hit them with poison gas once they’re all gathered in one place. OK, so I obviously don’t think Legere and company are literally evil and planning to gas us all. But I’ve spent a day thinking through the implications of the “Un-carrier’s” new “Binge On” move and I find myself feeling a real sense of unease about the whole thing. Basically, I think that Binge On sounds like a great deal that could also incur some serious trade offs that will make the web less open that it is today.

RELATED: T-Mobile will slow down your ‘unlimited’ LTE data in some circumstances – here are the details

In case you missed it yesterday, Binge On is a new initiative that exempts some video streaming services — including big names like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now and Sling TV — from T-Mobile’s monthly data cap limits. This means you can watch as much video from your favorite streaming services as you want and not have to worry about going over your monthly data allotment.

This obviously has some implications for net neutrality but T-Mobile has done an excellent job of working around the major objections that net neutrality advocates typically raise over such zero-rating schemes. The most important issue is that no money is changing hands here, which makes it substantially better than AT&T’s “sponsored data” scheme. If you’re a video streaming service and you want to have your app exempt from data caps, you just have to contact T-Mobile and be willing to meet their technical standards to get included.

T-Mobile told me yesterday that like its Music Freedom initiative that exempts music streaming services from data caps, Binge On will have as few barriers to entry as possible. It also says that Binge On video traffic on its network won’t be given priority treatment over other kinds of traffic, which means that you won’t have to worry that it will take 20 minutes to open an email because T-Mobile is giving priority to people watching Netflix.

These are all good things! But this initiative still makes me nervous, particularly when I think about what happens if it gets adopted as an industry-wide practice.

The beauty of the web as it’s existed for the past two decades is that if you’ve got a great idea for a business or an app, you can just put it online and let the free market render its verdict. Sure, you obviously have to pay for bandwidth, website maintenance and so forth but becoming successful doesn’t require that you make any special deals with last-mile Internet service providers.

Now imagine if every ISP, both wired and wireless, took up T-Mobile’s approach of setting up data caps and making exemptions for certain apps. Even if none of them asked you for money in exchange for not counting against monthly data caps, working with every one of those ISPs to meet their technical specifications to make sure your app makes the cut sounds like a major pain. And yes, it does sound like video streaming apps will have to jump through different hoops on different carriers — T-Mobile told me that its video compression technology is proprietary, so it can’t be used by Verizon or AT&T as an industry standard.

To reiterate, I don’t think that Binge On will completely destroy the Internet or anything quite so hyperbolic. However, it feels like a classic tragedy of the commons scenario where what T-Mobile is doing works fine as long as there’s only one carrier that’s doing it. Once it becomes a prerequisite for every single carrier out there, however, is where things get potentially problematic.

Prior to joining BGR as News Editor, Brad Reed spent five years covering the wireless industry for Network World. His first smartphone was a BlackBerry but he has since become a loyal Android user.