Clarifying The Bullshit From John Legere: What T-Mobile Is Really Doing And Why It Violates Net Neutrality

from the let's-be-clear-here dept

Earlier today we wrote about the latest misleading claims from John Legere and T-Mobile about its BingeOn program. I've seen some confusion some of the discussions about this -- some of it thanks to Legere's misleading claims -- so I wanted to go through exactly what T-Mobile appears to be doing and why it's problematic. Also, with that, I wanted to highlight the key part of the FCC's net neutrality rules regarding throttling, and the one single paragraph that T-Mobile appears to be banking on to protect it from getting slapped around.

First, let's be clear: T-Mobile wants to pretend that this is a "semantic" dispute about what it's doing, but that's bullshit. From the beginning the company has been flat out lying about its actions. That may get it in trouble in two ways -- first for violating the bright-line "no throttling" rules and for violating the corresponding transparency rules as well.

So what is T-Mobile doing: if you're a T-Mobile customer and you visit a page to stream or download video (whether or not it's a BingeOn partner), T-Mobile is automatically slowing down your bandwidth to about 1.5 Mbps. That's the throttling bit. What T-Mobile is telling people is that it's "optimizing" the video to a lower resolution. That may be true with some partners, but it's not true of non-partners, especially ones that are encrypted, such as YouTube, where T-Mobile has no way of "optimizing" the video. Instead, even with encrypted streams, since the metadata is still there, it can tell that you're, say, suddenly getting a lot of data from YouTube, and then it automatically slows down the bandwidth.

T-Mobile is hoping that at the server end, YouTube or any other video provider will see this slow bandwidth and say "oh, there's a narrow pipe here, so we should degrade the video down to lower resolution. So, if there's any "optimization" going on, it's actually happening at the server end after T-Mobile has basically tricked them into thinking there's a slow connection. But, in many cases, that doesn't happen, and the end result is not optimized video, or faster video, or even (as T-Mobile keeps claiming) getting to view 3x the amount of data under existing data caps. Instead, it's just the same video at the same resolution... but comes in much more slowly with lots of buffering.

So, to repeat: don't fall for John Legere's spin. The "proprietary technology" he keeps touting is not optimizing non-partner video. It is doing one thing and one thing only: and that's throttling the video.

Now, on to the FCC's rules. Let's look at what the rules pretty clearly say:
A person engaged in the provision of broadband Internet access service, insofar as such person is so engaged, shall not impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of Internet content, application, or service, or use of a non-harmful device, subject to reasonable network management.
Throughout the FCC's statement on the rules, it notes that this is a bright line rule.
With the no-throttling rule, we ban conduct that is not outright blocking, but inhibits the delivery of particular content, applications, or services, or particular classes of content, applications, or services. Likewise, we prohibit conduct that impairs or degrades lawful traffic to a non-harmful device or class of devices. We interpret this prohibition to include, for example, any conduct by a broadband Internet access service provider that impairs, degrades, slows down, or renders effectively unusable particular content, services, applications, or devices, that is not reasonable network management. For purposes of this rule, the meaning of “content, applications, and services” has the same as the meaning given to this phrase in the no-blocking rule. Like the no-blocking rule, broadband providers may not impose a fee on edge providers to avoid having the edge providers’ content, service, or application throttled. Further, transfers of unlawful content or unlawful transfers of content are not protected by the no-throttling rule. We will consider potential violations of the no-throttling rule under the enforcement provisions outlined below.

We find that a prohibition on throttling is as necessary as a rule prohibiting blocking. Without an equally strong no-throttling rule, parties note that the no-blocking rule will not be as effective because broadband providers might otherwise engage in conduct that harms the open Internet but falls short of outright blocking. For example, the record notes the existence of numerous practices that broadband providers can engage in to degrade an end user’s experience.
From that, it seems fairly clear that what T-Mobile is doing violates the no throttling rule. It is slowing down a class of content that is not for anything having to do with reasonable network management.

But T-Mobile keeps harping on the fact that this is "the user's choice" and even claimed throttling is only throttling if the user has no choice. That's because of the next paragraph in the rules -- and this seems to be the entire crux of T-Mobile's argument for why it's not violating the rules:
Because our no-throttling rule addresses instances in which a broadband provider targets particular content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices, it does not address a practice of slowing down an end user’s connection to the Internet based on a choice made by the end user. For instance, a broadband provider may offer a data plan in which a subscriber receives a set amount of data at one speed tier and any remaining data at a lower tier. If the Commission were concerned about the particulars of a data plan, it could review it under the no-unreasonable interference/disadvantage standard. In contrast, if a broadband provider degraded the delivery of a particular application (e.g., a disfavored VoIP service) or class of application (e.g., all VoIP applications), it would violate the bright-line no-throttling rule. We note that user-selected data plans with reduced speeds must comply with our transparency rule, such that the limitations of the plan are clearly and accurately communicated to the subscriber.
It's this paragraph that is going to be scrutinized like crazy. T-Mobile insists that because you have the choice to turn BingeOn off, that means that this is "based on a choice made by the end user" and thus the "no throttling" rule doesn't apply.

That seems like a difficult argument to sustain, given that T-Mobile made the initial choice for all of its users. So that initial choice was not made by the user, even if they can (through a convoluted process) turn it off. Separately, the second part that I bolded above appears to totally undermine T-Mobile's argument. It is degrading a class of applications (all video applications) and thus, the FCC rules note, it violates the bright-line no-throttling rule.

There is, separately, the issue of transparency. T-Mobile claims that it was transparent about all of this, but I don't think that's actually true. As we've covered, it really buried and hid the fact that BingeOn applied to non-partner videos, and did so in a confusing way. It also lied about the optimization and the claim that it couldn't even do anything to YouTube videos at the very time it was absolutely throttling them. That's not very transparent. On top of that, by continually falsely claiming that this was "optimization" not "throttling" and even claiming that it would "speed up" videos, rather than slow them down, I do wonder how the company can claim it was truly transparent.

On that front, T-Mobile has been relying on claims that it emailed and texted customers about the move. I have looked and I have received no such emails or texts. In fact, here are all the texts I've received from T-Mobile since August. Note the lack of any text about BingeOn.

Of course, who knows how the FCC will eventually deal with this, but the claim that the company is optimizing, rather than throttling is flat out wrong. It's a lie. The claim that it's respecting the net neutrality rules by letting you opt-out is questionable at best, and most likely false, as the consumer made no initial choice for the throttling. It's moves like these that raise serious questions about just how "consumer friendly" T-Mobile is really being, and which are seriously undermining trust in the company.
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Filed Under: bingeon, fcc, john legere, net neutrality, throttling, zero rating
Companies: t-mobile

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  1. icon
    ysth (profile), 12 Jan 2016 @ 2:16pm

    proprietary technology

    I thought the other thing their "proprietary technology" did was identify what might be a video (even if encrypted).

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