Why Net-Neutrality Activists Hate T-Mobile’s Free Video Plan

T-Mobile will let customers watch Netflix without burning through their data plans, but does that violate net neutrality?

T-Mobile CEO John Legere speaks at Un-carrier X press conference at the Shrine Auditorium on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015, in Los Angeles.
Photo by Jordan Strauss/AP Images for T-Mobile
Nov. 10, 2015, 8:11 p.m.

T-Mo­bile CEO John Legere bragged Tues­day that he’s giv­ing con­sumers “ex­actly what they want” by let­ting them watch pop­u­lar video ser­vices like Net­flix and HBO on their mo­bile devices without count­ing it against their monthly data pack­ages.

But con­sumer ad­voc­ates pounced on the new “Binge On” pro­gram, warn­ing that it could tilt the In­ter­net in fa­vor of the biggest com­pan­ies, vi­ol­at­ing the prin­ciple of net neut­ral­ity.

“As it stands, it looks like a net-neut­ral­ity vi­ol­a­tion right now,” said Bar­bara van Schewick, a pro­fess­or at Stan­ford Law School and a lead­ing net-neut­ral­ity sup­port­er. “The es­sence of net neut­ral­ity is that we don’t want In­ter­net ser­vice pro­viders to pick win­ners and losers.”

T-Mo­bile’s pro­gram ex­empts two dozen video sites—in­clud­ing Hulu, ES­PN, Fox Sports, and Show­time—from data caps, and the com­pany says that any oth­er video-stream­ing ser­vices that meet cer­tain tech­nic­al re­quire­ments can par­ti­cip­ate. You­Tube, however, is not part of the ini­tial pro­gram. The sites will stream at a slightly lower qual­ity than nor­mal.

“With Binge On, no one pays—not the cus­tom­ers, not the video-stream­ing ser­vices—and every­one wins,” Legere said dur­ing an event to un­veil the new pro­gram. “We want you to stop watch­ing your data and start watch­ing your shows.” 

But van Schewick warned that the tech­nic­al re­quire­ments to par­ti­cip­ate could be oner­ous for fledgling star­tups, and small com­pan­ies in oth­er coun­tries might not even know the pro­gram ex­ists. In the long run, T-Mo­bile’s pro­gram could give ma­jor me­dia com­pan­ies a big leg up, ul­ti­mately lead­ing to less in­nov­a­tion on­line, she said. “As a cus­tom­er, you ul­ti­mately lose if there are less video-stream­ing ser­vices avail­able,” she ar­gued.

The Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion en­acted sweep­ing net-neut­ral­ity reg­u­la­tions earli­er this year that ban In­ter­net pro­viders from block­ing web­sites, slow­ing down traffic, or cre­at­ing any spe­cial “fast lanes” for sites that pay. The com­mis­sion chose not to take a po­s­i­tion on “zero-rat­ing” policies (like T-Mo­bile’s Binge On) that ex­empt cer­tain ser­vices from data caps. But the agency left it­self room to crack down on those pro­grams un­der a broad pro­vi­sion that In­ter­net pro­viders can’t “un­reas­on­ably in­ter­fere” with the abil­ity of In­ter­net users to ac­cess the con­tent of their choice. The FCC didn’t re­spond to a re­quest to com­ment on T-Mo­bile’s an­nounce­ment Tues­day. 

T-Mo­bile, which is try­ing to find new ways to steal cus­tom­ers from Ve­r­i­zon and AT&T, already launched a sim­il­ar pro­gram called Mu­sic Free­dom last year that ex­emp­ted mu­sic-stream­ing ser­vices from its data caps. Con­sumer ad­voc­ates also ex­pressed con­cern about that pro­gram, al­though the FCC hasn’t taken any ac­tion.

John Bergmay­er, a seni­or staff at­tor­ney for the con­sumer-ad­vocacy group Pub­lic Know­ledge, warned that T-Mo­bile’s pro­grams could ul­ti­mately stifle com­pet­i­tion and leave con­sumers worse off. “I think in the long term, mov­ing the mo­bile In­ter­net to­wards a walled garden is not in any­one’s in­terest,” he said.

And Matt Wood, the policy dir­ect­or of act­iv­ist group Free Press, said cel­lu­lar pro­viders should just get rid of data caps al­to­geth­er and let con­sumers ac­cess an un­lim­ited amount of on­line con­tent of their choice. “It’s a cheap sales trick: First you fab­ric­ate a prob­lem for cus­tom­ers; then you make that prob­lem go away and act like you’ve done them a huge fa­vor,” he said in a state­ment.

Re­pub­lic­ans and busi­ness groups have warned that the FCC’s net-neut­ral­ity rules are dis­cour­aging in­vest­ment in broad­band net­works and pre­vent­ing In­ter­net pro­viders from ex­per­i­ment­ing with in­nov­at­ive busi­ness mod­els. There shouldn’t be any leg­al un­cer­tainty around a pro­gram to give con­sumers free ac­cess to videos, they ar­gue.

Legere dis­missed the net-neut­ral­ity con­cerns dur­ing Tues­day’s event. “It’s a fea­ture, and it’s com­plete cus­tom­er choice,” the T-Mo­bile chief ex­ec­ut­ive said. “We think it’s highly net-neut­ral­ity-friendly.”

What We're Following See More »
House GOP Cancels Retreat
1 hours ago
Senate Will Vote on Competing Plans to End Shutdown
1 hours ago

"After spending weeks on the sideline, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has entered the shutdown fray, striking an agreement with Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to vote on competing proposals to reopen the government. The two votes will happen on Thursday...Senators will first have an opportunity to go on the record on President Trump's proposal to extend legal protections for some immigrants for three years in exchange for $5.7 billion for a border wall....If (and when) that bill fails, McConnell will move on to… a 'clean' continuing resolution to reopen the government for three weeks, with no additional border wall money."

McConnell Promises a Vote This Week
21 hours ago
Gillibrand Announces Exploratory Committee
2 days ago
Sherrod Brown Also in 2020 Mode
2 days ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.