T-Mobile has taken some heat for its Binge On program, in which the company downsamples streaming video to 480p in exchange for not counting the data against customers’ data plans.
The program can be turned off, but is on by default for T-Mobile customers. Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, Watch EPSN and Sling Television are listed as partners, and the company says that video from other sources isn’t affected.
Two days ago, the Electronic Frontier Foundation voiced concern that all video is downsampled:
Back in November, T-Mobile announced a new service for its mobile customers called Binge On, in which video streams from certain websites don’t count against customers’ data caps.1 The service is theoretically open to all video providers without charge, so long as T-Mobile can recognize and then “optimize” the provider’s video streams to a bitrate equivalent to 480p. At first glance, this doesn’t sound too harmful—customers can watch more video without worrying about their caps, most will consider 480p to be adequate quality (especially on a small phone screen), and the harms of treating individual video providers differently are diminished when T-Mobile offers the program to any provider for free.
However, as Marvin Ammori wrote in Slate, there is another “feature” of Binge On that has many customers complaining. Ammori pointed out that T-Mobile is applying its “optimization” to all video, not just the video of providers who have asked T-Mobile to be zero-rated. T-Mobile claims it does this to provide a better experience for its customers, saying that “T-Mobile utilizes streaming video optimization technology throughout its network to help customers stretch their high-speed data while streaming video” and that Binge On helps “deliver a DVD quality (typically 480p or better) video experience with minimal buffering while streaming.”
The EFF’s testing shows that with Binge On enabled, T-Mobile throttles all video traffic, and doesn’t seem to optimize video at all.
Earlier today, T-Mobile posted a blog post on the subject, by John Legere, in which the CEO writes:
Customers now have the option to get WAY more video from their data plans PLUS FREE VIDEO from popular sites, AND more power and control over how they use their data. And customers want it! Video usage is huge! Just since launch, customers are watching 12% more video. In fact, we’ve already seen daily average viewership on one of our top services spike 66% among customers not on unlimited high-speed plans, in other words the ones who benefit from Binge ON the most! AND viewing time increased 23%. It’s crazy!
There are people out there saying we’re “throttling.” They’re playing semantics! Binge On does NOT permanently slow down data nor remove customer control. Here’s the thing, mobile customers don’t always want or need giant heavy data files. So we created adaptive video technology to optimize for mobile screens and stream at a bitrate designed to stretch your data (pssst, Google, that’s a GOOD thing). You get the same quality of video as watching a DVD – 480p or higher – but use only 1/3 as much data (or, of course, NO data used when it’s a Binge On content provider!). Watch more video, use less data from your service plan. That’s an important and valuable benefit!
In addition to the blog post, Legere posted this super-professional response to EFF on Twitter earlier this afternoon:
(The answer to his last question, by the way, can be found here.)
I haven’t done any testing on my T-Mobile account, and in fact, turned off the option as soon as it was announced because seeing video in the highest resolution is more important to me than eating into my data. However, the carrier’s response to EFF is pretty gross, and has me feeling pretty weird about having a T-Mobile SIM in my iPhone.