You may have heard about “Binge On”—a way for T-Mobile subscribers with 3 gigabyte data caps to watching online video without worrying about blowing past their data limit and being hit with sizable overage charges. Sounds awesome, huh? Perhaps for some, but the program has nevertheless been criticized due to the fact that certain apps were binge-able and others were not. As we previously pointed out with another T-Mobile program, “Music Freedom,” this establishes a troubling precedent for consumers who want to be able to use their preferred apps to access legitimate, licensed content without being penalized for doing so. Such plans, while consumer-friendly on the surface, also impact developers who may find their products and services in the penalty box for no discernable reason.
Even more troubling are reports that T-Mobile is not only excluding certain video services—they’re also throttling non-Binge On video across the board, even for subscribers with unlimited data plans. So if you’re a T-Mobile customer who wants to check out a band’s Pledge Music video to decide whether you want to plunk down to support their upcoming record, you might end up watching a spinning wheel instead. If you’re hoping to take in an exclusive live concert from your favorite singer-songwriter on your tablet while on the bus, you probably won’t have much luck.
We know—this sounds like the definition of a first-world problem. But the implications are pretty real. The whole reason that we have net neutrality is to ensure that certain voices are not discriminated against based on business or even political preferences. “Zero rating”—where Internet Service Providers exempt certain applications and services from data caps—has become the next frontier in the battle to preserve a level playing field online. We do recognize that programs like Binge On may seem like a sweet deal for consumers. But in reality, it means that your carrier is able to pick winners and losers online. And it’s not just T-Mobile—Comcast exempts their own Internet-based video service while subjecting rival platforms like Netflix to caps. AT&T has just unveiled its “sponsored data” program, which sounds a lot like paid prioritization to us.
That would be disconcerting enough without the throttling of legitimate traffic even for those under unlimited data plans. T-Mobile claims that they’re squeezing your streams for your own benefit, as part of their “network management practices.” We’re not so sure this passes the smell test, and apparently, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) isn’t either.
It has been reported that FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler is requesting more information about these practices. Letters were sent this week to AT&T, Comcast and T-Mobile, asking representatives from these companies to “come in and have a discussion with us about some of the innovative things that they are doing.” Is that like an unruly student getting a note to stop by the principal’s office to better understand the mischief being made? We appreciate the politeness, but also share concerns that “sponsored data unfairly advantages incumbent content providers,” as stated in the Commission’s letter to AT&T. It’s one thing to look for new ways to deliver value to consumers. It’s another to throttle everyone’s traffic or sticking it to the competition via selective data caps.
At the end of the day, it’s about choice. We think it’s awesome that companies recognize that content is a huge reason people subscribe to ISPs to begin with. But we also want to ensure that creators—including the millions of musicians who use an array of platforms to deliver unique experiences to fans—are able to do so in a way that doesn’t penalize them for their own innovation. If you’re experiencing issues with T-Mobile or any other carrier, we encourage you to let the FCC know.