Stream Wars: Behind The T-Mobile "Binge On" Controversy

Business.com / Technology / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

The third-largest cellular carrier in the United States would be empowering their users to “Binge On” without consequences.

If you’re used to using a smartphone, you’re probably also used to paying outrageous fees in order to stream your favorite music using Spotify, or a great episode of "Breaking Bad" on Netflix.

Addictions have costs, and the costs of using your smartphone’s LTE connection to get your binge on could break your bank account.

To see just how crazy it can get, look at this customer who allegedly got whacked with a $1,000 overage charge for one month of service.

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January 5, 2015: A Date that Will Live in Cellular Data Infamy 

Fortune.com’s article titled, “T-Mobile and the Fuss Over ‘Free’ Phone Streaming: What the Fight’s About” discussed in detail the complex issues surrounding the fallout in the week after John Legere (T-Mobile’s CEO) announced that the un-carrier had another trick up their sleeves. 

The third-largest cellular carrier in the United States would be empowering their users to “Binge On” without consequences.  

It was a bold move, considering the bread and butter of many cellphone carriers’ plans were expensive data plans.

To milk the cash-cow dry, most carriers had done away with unlimited data plans; forcing customers to pay for mobile data plans by the Gb.

Not T-Mobile. Not only were they still offering an unlimited data plan, but they were also going to turn a blind-eye to the streaming of some of the biggest mobile streaming providers: Amazon Video, Netflix, HBO Now, Hulu, SHOWTIME, WatchESPN and a lot more (totaling more than 40 streaming video services). 

But There’s Always a Catch 

The devil was in the details. Before long, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) started to generate some buzz about the secret sauce that made “Binge-On” work in T-Mobile’s favor.

It turns out that, according to the EFF, T-Mobile customers were suddenly experiencing throttling as well as a loss of picture quality when streaming video over T-Mobile’s LTE and 4G towers.

It was more than just the services included in Binge-On; every video streamed was downgrade to DVD video quality and the data stream was fully throttled.  

For customers used to watching 1080p full HD on their iPhone’s beautiful Retina display, the jump down to 640 X 480 resolution was very noticeable.

I can personally testify to the loss of video quality. My T-Mobile service was automatically enrolled in the Binge-On program and the next day it became clear things had changed.

Watching “The Office” on Netflix felt like I was watching a DVD-rip on YouTube. Yuck! Even trying a non-Binge-On video platform, like my favorite overseas networks on StreamTV just wasn’t enjoyable. 

Related Article: Streaming Happiness: Lessons From Netflix About Content Marketing

FCC Net Neutrality Concerns 

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States put “Open Internet” rules into place on February 26, 2015.

In the debate leading up to the imposing of new Internet ground-rules in the U.S., there was much debate over the pros and cons of Net Neutrality.

The guiding principles behind net neutrality are that all legal video content and other legal online content can be accessed equally, prohibiting network providers from limiting speeds of certain data transfer, or effectively creating a fast lane and slow lane to the Internet. 

Data Network Providers Fought for the Ability to Prioritize Specific Web Traffic  

Many network providers argued that video services, like Netflix, were hogging available bandwidth and negatively impacting the delivery of the rest of online traffic to end-users.

Many providers, most notably Verizon FiOs, began harshly throttling Netflix for households that streamed excessive amounts of video over their high-speed network.

Some saw this move as a way to punish the cable cutters that were cancelling traditional cable television packages. 

By Law, All Data Must Be Transmitted Equally 

In the end, the FCC’s Open Internet program prohibits preferential treatment of any type of data over a publicly accessible network.

In effect, the big cable and cellular networks lost a major fight and some view the FCC as a hero to the public. Not everyone agrees, but the rules are the rules. 

T-Mobile Accused of Illegally Throttling Video Data 

In the weeks following the implementation of Binge-On, the accusations that T-Mobile was illegally throttling specific data, in violation of net neutrality regulations, began to pick up steam.

T-Mobile’s CEO became so irate that he proceeded to release a video on Twitter with some vulgar language directed at the EFF and other organizations backing their claims against T-Mobile’s big, shiny marketing ploy.  

T-Mobile Claims that Users Have Full Control 

One of the key underlying components of Net Neutrality regulations is that users need to have full control over how they want data prioritized when delivered over a network.

T-Mobile has made the claim that they have been up-front with customers and explained how to enable to disable the feature that they claim gives users up to 3X more usage per gigabyte of data on their cellular plan. 

Related Article: 20 Social & Digital Trends That Will Impact Marketing in 2016

So who’s in the right? Well, I suppose it’s up to every T-Mobile customer that chooses to stay with, or join the “Un-Carrier”.

Either way, it’s been an exciting few months and I’m sure we haven’t heard the end of this debate. 

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