T-Mobile CEO Responds to Binge On Controversy

Published: January 13, 2016 10:25 PM /


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Previously we had reported on a controversy surrounding T-Mobile's Binge On service. It throttles video streams to about 1.5 megabits per second. In theory it also reduces the video quality to 480p, however on many sites, including YouTube, Binge On is unable to reduce the quality. The benefit of Binge On is that videos will not count toward the data cap while it is active. While this service has gotten criticism since it was first implemented, it drew even more attention after the EFF empirically proved that video streams were being throttled, despite protestations from T-Mobile that this was not the case.

John Legere, the CEO of T-Mobile, has now decided to respond to the controversy. He states a commitment to both net neutrality and standing up for consumer rights. He believes the controversy is mainly due to confusion about the service, so he describe how it all works.

Binge On is a FREE benefit given to all T-Mobile customers.  It is and always has been a feature that helps you stretch your data bucket by optimizing ALL of your video for your mobile devices.  It has two key parts to it:

1. We use our proprietary techniques to attempt to detect all video, determine its source, identify whether it should be FREE and finally adjust all streams for a smaller/handheld device.  (Most video streams come in at incredibly high resolution rates that are barely detectable by the human eye on small device screens and this is where the data in plans is wasted).  The result is that the data in your bucket is stretched by delivering streamed video in DVD quality - 480p or better (whether you have a 2GB, 6GB or 10GB plan etc.) so your data lasts longer.  Putting aside the 38+ services for which we provide FREE data for video through Binge On, as discussed below – this “stretching” of your data bucket is estimated to allow you to watch UP TO 3X MORE VIDEO from your data plan than before. This is a huge step forward.

2. Binge On gives you FREE data that doesn’t hit your data bucket at all when you stream or watch from any of our participating video services (38 of them to date & counting).… We want to keep growing this list and already have over 50 services interested in coming on board.  We don’t charge any video streaming companies to participate and every service provider is WELCOME!  All the partner has to do is a minor amount of technical work to help us identify their video data reliably. 

While this is a decent overview of the system, it has one pretty glaring omission. It doesn't mention what happens if you try to watch a video in high quality on a site that is not a partner. Videos on non-partner sites, like YouTube, are throttled like all others, but due to a technical issue they cannot be downgraded to 480p. So unless a user manually adjusts the quality to 480p or lower, they will be subjected to a stuttering video that frequently stops to buffer.

All I would really expect here is just a basic warning of what will happen if a user tries to watch a video on YouTube, and offer a suggestion that they may want to either manually adjust the quality or turn off Binge On. The fact that T-Mobile does not mention that this behavior will occur or explain why it occurs is a big part of the perception that T-Mobile is acting shady, and this statement does nothing to alleviate that.

The statement goes on to say that this service is not in violation of net neutrality because it can be turned off at any time, and it's also pro-consumer for the same reason. The fact that Binge On is active by default and must turned off if a user doesn't want it has drawn criticism, but Legere defends it by stating that Binge On is such a great service that customers would be disappointed if they had to dig into settings to turn it on.

The post also contains an apology towards the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In response to previous questioning by the EFF about the Binge On service, Legere's reply stated, "Part B of my answer is: Who the fuck are you anyway EFF? Why are you stirring up so much trouble and who pays you?" However, that response seemed to upset the EFF and many of their supporters. Legere apologizes for offending them and states the he and the EFF have common ground of standing up for consumer rights and he looks forward to sitting down with them to discuss the issue.

Is Binge On a useful service for consumers, or a shady practice by T-Mobile. Leave your comment below.

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I’m a technology reporter located near the Innovation District of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.