T-Mobile Exempts Video Streams From Wireless Data Caps, Sets A Horrible Precedent
from the tap-dancing-around-neutrality dept
As rumored, T-Mobile has unveiled its latest attempt to kick the nation’s wireless duopoly in the shins: exempting video services from the company’s wireless broadband usage caps. According to the company’s latest press release, T-Mobile customers will soon be able to stream video from 24 participating partners without it counting against user usage allotments. The initial list of participating companies includes most of the usual suspects, with T-Mobile stating any notable omissions (like YouTube and Amazon Prime Streaming) will be added in time.
— John Legere (@JohnLegere) November 10, 2015
It’s an obvious extension of the company’s existing Music Freedom effort, which makes select music services cap exempt. That effort caused a bit of a net neutrality kerfuffle at launch, given that initially only the most popular music services (dictated by T-Mobile customer votes) were cap exempt. As is the problem with most zero rating programs, that immediately creates an unlevel playing field for smaller nonprofits and independents that aren’t big enough to get onto T-Mobile’s radar and be whitelisted.
But with Binge On, T-Mobile was obviously more prepared for the inevitable net neutrality criticism that somehow caught the company off guard last time.
This is “not a net neutrality problem,” T-Mobile US CEO John Legere was quick to proclaim during the announcement. “It’s free, the providers don’t pay, the customers don’t pay. Most importantly…you can shut it off, it’s complete customer choice,” he added. Users who enable the service enjoy “optimized” 480p video streams that don’t count against their caps. Turn it off, and users will view standard, higher-resolution streams that will erode their usage allotments. Legere also promised that any company “can meet our technical criteria” (said criteria hasn’t yet been specified) can participate.
As far as zero rated programs go, it’s not an apparently awful implementation, and it’s going to appeal to a lot of customers. The problem continues to be precedent. The simple act of accepting wireless carriers as middlemen fit to determine what should or shouldn’t be allowed past arbitrary usage restrictions paves the way for a very uncertain future, as the Verge rather hysterically worries:
“Binge On is bad because it gives T-Mobile too much power. It’s really that simple. And yes, it’s bad for net neutrality. If net neutrality has a core idea, it’s that regular people ought to be in charge of the internet — especially since the internet is mostly just people. That means companies like T-Mobile shouldn’t be picking winners and losers, even if customers appear to be winning in the short term. And there are definitely going to be losers. Legere insists that anybody who wants to be a part of Binge On can be, as long as they meet T-Mobile’s technical specifications. It’s not clear what those specifications are yet, though Legere used words like “optimized video” and “DVD quality or better.” But that just sounds a lot like another type of managed network: cable television.”
Consumer groups like Free Press also make the solid point that if you realize that caps are entirely arbitrary in the first place (untied to neither financial or network necessity), letting select services bypass them quickly loses its majesty:
“T-Mobile wants to suggest it’s saving customers by exempting video from its data caps. But we have to remember that T-Mobile imposed these caps in the first place. It’s a cheap sales trick: First you fabricate a problem for customers; then you make that problem go away and act like you’ve done them a huge favor.”
And not everybody is as consumer-friendly and disruptive as T-Mobile. Allowing T-Mobile to inject itself into the data stream in this fashion encourages other wireless carriers to do so, and you can be damn certain that AT&T and Verizon’s vision of zero rating will be notably more ham-fisted and problematic. Even if you admire T-Mobile’s particular implementation of zero rating, small independents still have to reach out for T-Mobile’s permission to be placed on the same, level playing field as their larger counterparts. Many may not even realize they’re in such a position.
You’ll probably see countless reports suggesting that T-Mobile’s move is sure to “invite scrutiny by the FCC,” but that’s highly unlikely. T-Mobile’s done a fantastic job of selling a potentially problematic precedent as consumer empowerment. Meanwhile, the FCC has made it abundantly clear it sees usage caps and zero rating as creative pricing experimentation, in the process opening the door wide to a lopsided vision of the Internet many will naively be cheering for.