T-Mobile Binge On may reduce all video quality, a sneaky trend for streaming plans

T-Mobile makes a murky issue worse by declining to provide details about what's really going on.

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T-Mobiles’ Binge On program has gone too far by throttling all streaming video traffic regardless of data plan or network congestion, according to a group of tech industry heavyweights.

The Internet Association—a group that counts Netflix, Amazon, Google, and Facebook among its members—claims that T-Mobile is reducing video quality for all streaming services without giving adequate choice or notice to consumers. The group has applauded the Federal Communications Commission for looking into T-Mobile’s practices.

Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, an unnamed YouTube spokesman gave more details: With Binge On, participating services agree to reduce video quality to 480p resolution in exchange for not counting against users’ data caps. YouTube is not yet participating in the program due to technical issues, yet its videos are getting downgraded to 480p anyway.

T-Mobile hasn’t responded directly to the accusations, except to say that users have the option to turn off Binge On whenever they want. This doesn’t address whether Binge On reduces non-participating videos to 480p resolution.

It’s possible that T-Mobile just thought it was doing the right thing. After all, users who are happy with unlimited 480p video might also want the same video quality across the board, so that even non-participating video sources consume less data.

The problem is that T-Mobile hasn’t been up-front about its policies, so users can’t make an informed decision. Even now, the company won’t acknowledge in its press statements how its throttling policy applies to non-Binge On sources, and the company’s statement on network management (as required by net neutrality rules) only points vaguely at “streaming video optimization technology” without any mention of speeds or resolution.

Why this matters: The complaints come a touchy time for wireless carriers. Many are trying to monetize their data caps in creative ways to skate around the FCC’s new net neutrality rules, which prohibit unfair prioritization of certain traffic sources. AT&T and Verizon, for instance, are both pushing the idea of “toll-free data,” in which Internet providers pay to keep their services from counting against customers’ caps, while T-Mobile has jacked up the price of its unlimited data plans as it focuses marketing around Binge On. Although FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has praised Binge On as being “pro-innovation,” the agency is also seeking more information from T-Mobile and others. A perceived lack of transparency and choice may not help the carrier’s case.

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