Customers and video providers love T-Mobile's Binge On service, according to the carrier's chief executive. Net neutrality advocates? Not so much.
The conflict could put the Federal Communications Commission, which is already looking into the unlimited video streaming service, in a pickle. Many consumers like the program, but it may violate the agency's rules for keeping the Internet free and open.
In a blog post Thursday, outspoken T-Mobile CEO John Legere defended Binge On, which lets some customers stream an unlimited amount of video from certain services to their smartphones without busting their monthly data caps. He also offered new information about its growth and popularity.
Legere said an additional 14 video providers have signed on, including A&E, Lifetime and PlayStation Vue, and 50 others are interested in joining. The service launched in November with 24 providers, including Netflix, Hulu and ESPN.
Early stats, Legere claimed, prove customers are benefiting from the new program. Since the launch of Binge On, he said, video usage is up 12 percent, while daily viewership on one of the top video services is up 66 percent for customers not on an unlimited data plan. Viewing time has also increased 23 percent.
"Customers are thrilled," he said. "Video providers couldn't be happier to deliver more of their great content to mobile devices, knowing their viewers aren't forced to 'watch the data meter.'"
The Binge On program underscores how much consumers have come to value video streamed to their smartphones, whether it's a news report from city hall, a YouTube performance by their favorite band or a short scene of a friend's toddler scooting across the kitchen. It's also one of the many new programs cooked up in the last half-year by wireless carriers looking to curry favor with customers sensitive to the costs of using services that eat up their data plans.
Who doesn't love free video streaming?
Not everyone is thrilled. Earlier this week, Internet advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation accused T-Mobile of throttling, or slowing down, all video traffic to a data rate of 1.5 megabits per second, even for customers not subscribed to Binge On and even when the network was not congested with other traffic. The EFF claims that video streamed at this low bit rate can result in a poor experience, including buffering. This follows similar accusations from Google's streaming video service, YouTube, which has declined to participate in Binge On.
Legere scoffed at the claims, saying Binge On's critics are "playing semantics."
According to the EFF's report, T-Mobile admitted that it reduces the bandwidth available to video, which results in transmission at a lower bit rate. Legere has said the video still looks good on smaller smartphone screens, and on Thursday he pointed out that customers can turn off the service anytime. Of course, then T-Mobile would start counting data usage from streaming video providers participating in the program against customers' monthly caps.
"We created adaptive video technology to optimize for mobile screens and stream at a bit rate designed to stretch your data (pssst, Google, that's a GOOD thing)," he wrote. "You get the same quality of video as watching a DVD, but use only 1/3 as much data (or, of course, NO data used when it's a Binge On content provider)."
T-Mobile's Binge On service is an example of a practice known as "zero rating," which allows Internet service providers to not count data usage for certain applications against a customer's monthly cap. While the practice offers some benefits, critics say it violates the FCC's Net neutrality principles, which require all services on the Internet be treated the same. They claim it puts smaller competitors at a disadvantage and shows that data caps are unnecessary.
The FCC has yet to take a hard stand on "zero rating," and its Net neutrality rules deliberately don't ban such deals. Instead, the agency says it will review situations individually. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has said he will keep an eye on Binge On, but he also praised the service for its innovation. Last month, the FCC sent letters to T-Mobile, along with AT&T and Comcast, which offer similarly controversial services, asking for more information.
"The net neutrality rules aren't just words on a piece of paper -- they're regulations meant to protect Internet users from precisely this sort of abuse of power by ISPs," the EFF wrote in its report. "Our research suggests this is a significant consumer harm that runs afoul of well-established open Internet principles. The FCC can and should step in and hold T-Mobile accountable."
It's too early to say what the FCC will do. Even if the agency were to determine that Binge On violates the rules, it could prove awkward to ban a practice that appears to please customers.