T-Mobile has announced its new Binge On service as a continuing part of its “uncarrier” movement. Binge On allows T-Mobile customers with capped data plans to continue streaming video from 24 different services — including Netflix, Hulu, and HBO GO — without using up their limited data.
That’s right: unlimited video streaming from Netflix and other major video streaming apps. That sounds fantastic, but could it have more serious long-term ramifications for the future of the Internet and how we treat streaming data?
It very well could. Let’s investigate.
What Net Neutrality Really Means
Basically, Net Neutrality simply means that all data on the Internet should be treated equally, that all kinds of data should be equally accessible and available at the same speeds. Anyone who has an Internet connection should have an equal opportunity to access any service on the Internet.
Proponents of Net Neutrality argue that this allows for rapid innovation on the Web since brand new websites and services can be accessed just as easily as the big, already-established players.
But since there are a few big players (like Netflix) who occupy most of the Internet’s traffic, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Comcast would love to slow down Netflix’s service unless they pay up. The fear among consumers and the FCC is that these “fast lanes” for services like Netflix would create tiers of Internet accessibility — because where there’s a fast lane, there’s also a slow lane.
If ISPs could demand money from any website or service that wants to get into the fast lane, that would essentially shut out all new competition and consumers would have no way to vote with their wallets. You either use the services that bought into the fast lane, or you suffer in the slow lane.
This would make the Internet less of an even playing field and more of a game of who can most afford to pay ISPs for preferential treatment.
So far, Net Neutrality has been winning, but the battle is never over, and in the mobile Internet arena, the rules are a bit more grey thanks to something called zero-rating.
Fast vs. Slow, Capped vs. Uncapped
Mobile data is an entirely different beast from the Internet, which is brought into your house by cable or fiber optics while mobile connections are entirely wireless. As such, it’s common practice for wireless carriers like AT&T and Verizon to cap their customers’ data plans and limit how much bandwidth they can use.
Generally, this means that anything you do on your phone that requires data will subtract from said data cap — but some wireless carriers have found a way to circumvent this in a practice known as zero-rating. Zero-rating simply means that for some apps or services on your phone, the data they use doesn’t count towards your data cap.
— Mwendwa Kivuva (@LORDMWESH) November 12, 2015
So it’s not exactly like the difference between a fast lane and a slow lane, but the difference between a capped lane and an uncapped lane.
In the case of T-Mobile’s new Binge On service, it technically doesn’t break any Net Neutrality rules. For one, it has nothing to do with preferential speeds, and for two, T-Mobile isn’t forcing these apps to pay extra fees in order to be included in the uncapped lane. So far, it seems like a good thing, right?
But anything that dances around the edge of violating Net Neutrality is worth a closer look, and this new announcement by T-Mobile could be the start of a slippery slope.
This Is How Net Neutrality Dies
T-Mobile CEO John Legere insists that this move doesn’t infringe on Net Neutrality — but then again, as the leader of a company who stands to benefit from stepping on Net Neutrality’s toes, why wouldn’t he?
He points to the fact that Music Freedom, which is T-Mobile’s service that allows for unlimited music streaming from certain apps, has been successful over the past year and hasn’t cut out competition because companies don’t have to pay to get into the program. For similar reasons, he argues that there aren’t fast lanes because all of the data is the same speed.
If you want to, you can even turn off Binge On in your account settings and live solely with your capped data.
But what happens when T-Mobile’s Music Freedom and Binge On expand to cover other apps, like social apps or video games? What happens when any app or service can apply to escape the cap? Then what happens to the capped data?
It’s simply impossible for everything to be shifted into the uncapped lane because this would make capped data plans obsolete. If uncapped data plans weren’t problematic, T-Mobile would already be offering them. So what’s T-Mobile’s reasoning behind allowing the largest data hogs to circumvent the data cap?
— Joshua Topolsky (@joshuatopolsky) November 10, 2015
At some point, the evolution of T-Mobile’s plans would make apps and services in the “unlimited program” the norm, and everything else that still falls under the capped data would be outliers. In other words, T-Mobile would become the gatekeeper that vets which apps can have uncapped data, and they’d set the requirements — like paying fees.
Combined with the potential for even tighter data plans, this would put T-Mobile in complete control of what apps you’ll eventually be able to use — and that’s a lot of power for one company to have. Our Internet is safer off without wireless carriers who can decide what apps and services we can use.
Deep Down, “Binge On” Is Ugly
There are more limitations to Binge On beyond the great Net Neutrality ramifications. Some have pointed out that quality on the streaming service will be capped at “DVD quality”, or 480p, which Legere says looks good enough on phone screens. However, those with 1080p smartphones would probably disagree.
This is meant to help reduce the amount of data strain that Binge On puts on T-Mobile’s network, but it might be a bit of a deterrent for those who are used to crystal-clear, high-resolution Netflix streams.
can't wait to regale my grandchildren with tales of when we gave up net neutrality for free 480p video streams
— dan-ksgiving parade (@dcseifert) November 12, 2015
Also, there’s a major video streaming service that’s missing from Binge On: YouTube.
Having recently announced YouTube Red — which might be a bad idea for other reasons — it’s clear that YouTube is trying to be more of a competitor to Netflix and Hulu by offering original content on a paid subscription model. So why isn’t it part of the Binge On program? It’s dubiously missing.
Since current T-Mobile customers will have Binge On activated by default, and they don’t serve to gain much by disabling it, it’s likely that the service will quickly gather a substantial user base. It’s hard as a customer to argue with a service that costs you nothing to use, but it’s the long-term costs that we should really consider.
Will You Be Using Binge On?
We’re curious what you think about Binge On. If you’re already a T-Mobile customer, will you be taking advantage of the video streaming service? If you’re not, is this tempting you at all to switch to T-Mobile? Or do you see this as an attack on Net Neutrality?
Let us know down in the comments — we’d love to hear your opinions!