Real Customer Choice For T-Mobile’s Binge On Requires Transparency, Opt-In

If you’ve been paying attention, you probably noticed the recent headlines about T-Mobile CEO John Legere and his anti-EFF mini-rant on Twitter. Legere was responding to a question we had asked about T-Mobile’s Binge On service: “Does Binge On alter the video stream in any way, or just limit its bandwidth?” But it apparently made him angry enough to drop an f-bomb on us.

He’s since apologized and urged everyone to turn the conversation back to what really matters: user choice and ISP transparency. We are grateful for his apology, and we agree with him. It’s important to focus on the underlying issues instead of being distracted by color commentary. So let’s talk about the issues.

We want to start by clearly stating our position on Binge On, the carrier’s video-streaming product that lets users stream video without using their data. We think Binge On has great promise. Providing customers a way to control how they use their data is something more ISPs should offer, and in this respect we think Binge On contains the kernel of a good idea.

The most serious problem with Binge On, as it is now, is that T-Mobile has imposed throttling without its customers’ making an informed choice to participate.

T-Mobile made Binge On opt-out, which means that, by default, all T-Mobile customers were having all of their video throttled. As we’ve said before, throttling all traffic by default based on application type runs afoul of well-established open Internet principles. Again, we’re not arguing that exchanging throttling for zero-rating isn’t a benefit for some people; we just think people should be able to make that choice themselves, instead of having it thrust upon them.

Although the option to opt-out constitutes some level of consumer choice, it’s important to recognize that defaults matter, and that a lot of customers (especially less tech-savvy ones) will never even realize that they can change them.

Additionally, T-Mobile hasn’t been transparent and honest with its users about how Binge On actually works. As a result, the opt-out “choice” customers have been presented with hasn’t been an informed one.

When it launched Binge On back in November, T-Mobile touted that “Powered by new technology built in to T-Mobile’s network, Binge On optimizes video for mobile screens, minimizing data consumption while still delivering DVD or better quality (e.g. 480p or better).”

Similarly, on the webpage in which T-Mobile describes how it manages its network, it says that Binge On “uses video streaming optimization…to deliver a DVD quality (typically 480p or better) video experience with minimal buffering while streaming.” And last week, Legere said that “we created adaptive video technology to optimize for mobile screens and stream at a bitrate designed to stretch your data.”

To anyone from the average user to a Ph.D. in computer science, these descriptions of what Binge On does seem pretty straightforward. When you go to stream a video, T-Mobile’s “video streaming optimization” technology should automatically optimize the video for your mobile screen. Trying to stream an HD (or heaven forbid, a 4K) video to your tiny screen, or download one for watching later? T-Mobile will save you data by ensuring that you actually get a 480p video instead.

The problem is, that’s not how Binge On actually works. Binge On does not adapt video in any way, shape, or form. It doesn’t optimize video. It doesn’t down-sample video. It doesn’t modify the bitrate of the underlying video stream. It does not automatically transform HD video into 480p video. All Binge On does is cap the bandwidth allocated to the video stream to around 1.5Mbps.

We call that “throttling.” T-Mobile calls it “downgrading.” (For the record, we think that’s also a misleading term, since downgrading implies video streams are simply being given a lower priority than other traffic. If that were true, then in the absence of higher priority traffic, videos should stream at the same throughput as any other content. But that’s not the case: our tests showed that video streams are capped at around 1.5Mbps even when there’s no congestion.) Whatever you call it, T-Mobile does not actually modify the content of video that enters its network.

So why does T-Mobile keep insisting that Binge On will result in 480p non-buffering-super-smooth streaming video? Because for some services, it will. Many major streaming video services, from Netflix to YouTube, automatically detect how much bandwidth is available for their video streams to use. They then adapt the quality of the video they send out, so that it streams smoothly. In other words, they detect that T-Mobile is capping the bandwidth, and they optimize the video they send.

Some (including Legere) have argued that this is just semantics. Video gets adapted one way or another, so what’s the problem?

In order for customers to make informed choices, and in order for websites to be able to reach those customers, the public needs technically accurate information about how ISPs manage their networks.

The problem is that not all videos adapt automatically by default. Simple embedded HTML5 video, for example, doesn’t have any built-in adaptation capability. When fixed bitrate videos like these hit throttling on T-Mobile’s network, playback will stutter or fail. In order to reach T-Mobile’s customers without playback issues, an independent provider like a journalist, startup or university would need to build or purchase a system to monitor for and adapt to such throttling.

Additionally, T-Mobile is throttling video downloads, not just streams. So if you’re trying to save a video to watch for later, you’ll eventually get the HD or 4K video file and you’ll use just as much data as you would otherwise, but you’re in for a longer wait than necessary. More than anything, this exposes the fact that T-Mobile’s implementation of Binge On doesn’t actually do any optimization—after all, if it were all about streaming optimization, Binge On wouldn’t touch downloads. It’s not semantics. It’s apples and oranges.

In order for customers to make informed choices, and in order for websites to be able to reach those customers, the public needs technically accurate information about how ISPs manage their networks.

If you were a T-Mobile customer who blamed a website when you had trouble trying to stream an HD video, your blame would be misplaced, because T-Mobile didn’t clearly describe how Binge On works. And if you were a web developer who wanted T-Mobile customers to be able to download your videos, you might assume that they’d download as fast as any other file, but you’d be wrong, because T-Mobile didn’t clearly describe how Binge On works.

Certainly there are secondary issues with Binge On. T-Mobile is throttling all videos, not just those of streaming providers who have signed up with T-Mobile. That wasn’t as clear as it could have been at first.

T-Mobile is also throttling videos that it’s not zero-rating, when it could at least try to zero-rate them (even if it couldn’t commit to doing so). And even when zero-rating programs are open to all edge providers for free (like Binge On), they still tilt the playing field toward larger providers who have the resources to enroll and adapt their video streams to compensate for throttling (and even realize that they need to).

But for now, our biggest concern with Binge On is about a major ISP being honest and clear with its customers, and whether or not that ISP gives its customers a real, informed choice about how to manage their data.

We’ve heard that many of T-Mobile’s customers appreciate Binge On. We may not love it ourselves, but we don’t think T-Mobile needs to abolish the program completely—it just needs to make some changes to how it works, how customers can choose to use it, and how T-Mobile describes it to the public. We think those changes would not only allow customers (and website developers) to make better informed decisions, they would benefit the Internet as a whole.

In his post this week, Legere emphasized how supportive he and T-Mobile are of net neutrality. But net neutrality isn’t just about treating traffic neutrally, and it’s not even just about giving customers control. It’s also about being transparent with network management practices.

To promote meaningful customer choice, Binge On should be opt-in and the program should be clearly explained. And to avoid discriminating among sources of online video, T-Mobile should not zero-rate some throttled video while counting other throttled video towards the user’s data cap.

We hope that Mr. Legere agrees that taking these steps to improve Binge On would be a good thing for his customers and the Internet at large.