T-Mobile's Binge On Service Throttles Video and Calls it Optimization

Published: January 4, 2016 9:47 PM /


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Back in December, Slate reported on T-Mobile's new Binge On service, and suggested that it may be in violation of the FCC's net neutrality regulations. While Binge On is active, which is automatically the case for all T-Mobile subscribers unless they specifically opt-out, any videos a user watches on partner sites like Netflix will not count toward the data cap. But there is catch. Binge On automatically reduces the quality of videos to what it calls, "DVD quality," or in other words not HD. T-Mobile has passed this reduction in quality off as optimization for mobile devices. This quality reduction applies to videos even on sites that are not partnered with T-Mobile and will still count toward the data cap.

However it has also been admitted by T-Mobile that Binge On is unable to reduce the quality of videos on certain sites, because they use encryption. YouTube was specifically mentioned as a site that has been giving them difficulty, because the site uses encryption. However, regardless of whether or not T-Mobile is able to reduce the quality of the video, and also regardless of whether or not the video is hosted by one of T-Mobile's partners, the download speed is being throttled. While the throttling may escape notice if the quality is reduced, users who try to watch an encrypted HD video will see frequent buffering.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation did its own tests to determine how Binge On was really working. The tests were carefully constructed to be as fair as possible, using the exact same phone, phone plan, location and time of day, with the only difference being Binge On being enabled or disabled. The tests compared streaming video as well as downloading video to SD card. They also downloaded a video file with the HTTP header modified so that it was not identified as a video. Finally they tested downloading a large non-video file as a basis of comparison. The results are summarized in the graph below, which shows the average throughput in megabits per second.

Source: Electronic Frontier Foundation

The EFF concludes that all video downloads are throttled to about 1.5 Mbps, even if the phone is capable of faster speeds, and this occurs whether or not the video is being streamed in a browser or downloaded to SD card. The EFF was concerned that Binge On was throttling video content even if the headers were changed and suspected T-Mobile may be inspecting the content of the video. However, T-Mobile told the EFF they have solution to detect video specific protocols without actually inspecting the content.

The EFF also determined that the so-called optimization doesn't actually enhance the video stream for mobile devices as claimed by T-Mobile. "This means T-Mobile’s 'optimization' consists entirely of throttling the video stream’s throughput down to 1.5Mbps," the article states, "If the video is more than 480p and the server sending the video doesn’t have a way to reduce or adapt the bitrate of the video as it’s being streamed, the result is stuttering and uneven streaming—exactly the opposite of the experience T-Mobile claims their 'optimization' will have."

Is T-Mobile lying to their costumers, or is Binge On completely legit? Leave your comments below.

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