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T-Mobile USA CEO Tussles with EFF Over Binge On

T-Mobile USA CEO John Legere became a bit…unhinged, shall we say, last week on Twitter, confronting Net neutrality advocates questioning his company’s Binge On data policies.

Binge On was launched by the wireless company, the fourth-largest in the United States, to allow subscribers to watch mobile video from certain providers, without it counting against their data allotments.  

During a Twitter Q&A, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) asked a question about whether Binge On throttles videos for all customers, pointing to recent testing data showing that what the company claimed was “optimization” could be seen as throttling. Legere’s response was a bit over the top: “Who the f*** are you, EFF? Why are you stirring up so much trouble? And who pays you?”

Classy!

But, let’s look under the hood of the controversy for a moment. Video takes up a lot of bandwidth, and the result of a higher-than-usual amount of bandwidth being pushed through the network pipes is a slowing of service for everyone—a poor video experience for the streamers, sure, but you can also count on data activity that has the consistency of your Aunt Ida’s mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving.

And the fact is, today’s wireless networks aren’t set up to accommodate even a tenth of T-Mobile’s US subscriber base streaming Netflix etc. over the 3G/4G footprint all at the same time. Which makes Binge On a dumb idea to begin with—but also one that has painted the carrier into a corner.

To maintain the quality of service for its subscriber base, it has implemented what it’s termed “bandwidth optimization” for all video streams, reducing them to a bitrate equivalent to 480p.

As the EFF explained: “T-Mobile is applying its ‘optimization” to all video, not just the video of providers who have asked T-Mobile to be zero-rated. T-Mobile claims it does this to provide a better experience for its customers…and that Binge On helps ‘deliver a DVD quality (typically 480p or better) video experience with minimal buffering while streaming.’”

EFF decided to test what was going on, using an account that had Binge On enabled, in the same physical location and at roughly the same time of day, using the same phone—with a good 4G LTE connection. It found that when Binge On is enabled, T-Mobile throttles all HTML5 video streams to around 1.5Mps, even when the phone is capable of downloading at higher speeds, and regardless of whether or not the video provider is enrolled in Binge On.

“This is the case whether the video is being streamed or being downloaded—which means that T-Mobile is artificially reducing the download speeds of customers with Binge On enabled, even if they’re downloading the video to watch later,” EFF noted. “It also means that videos are being throttled even if they’re being watched or downloaded to another device via a tethered connection.”

The EFF is nonplussed. “T-Mobile has claimed that this practice isn't really throttling, but we disagree,” it said. “It's clearly not optimization, since T-Mobile doesn't alter the actual content of the video streams in any way. Even the term ‘downgrading’ is inaccurate, because that would mean video streams are simply being given a lower priority than other traffic. If that were true, then in the absence of higher priority traffic, videos should stream at the same throughput as any other content.”

EFF’s assessment: “In other words, our results show that T-Mobile is throttling video streams, plain and simple.”

The technical reality is a bit more complicated than that—traffic has to be looked at and shaped on a macro level, not just on the level of the individual subscriber—but nonetheless, Legere didn’t take it well—to say the least.

He also didn’t do himself any favors with the digital rights community at large. In response, Fight for the Future did little to up the maturity ante, and launched DouchebagCEO.com, which redirects to JohnLegere.net, a website encouraging people to tweet Legere their thoughts on his Twitter attack.

 “John Legere tries to act like he’s your cool and edgy uncle, but really he’s just a bully hurling insults at everyone who challenges his company’s blatant attempt to hack net neutrality and break the Internet for short-term profit,” said Holmes Wilson, co-founder of Fight for the Future, “EFF caught him red-handed and instead of backing down or trying to explain his way out of it, he lashed out like a kid who’s been caught in a lie. A person like this should not be in charge of a major telecom company that’s responsible for delivering internet access to so many people.”

Ouch. T-Mo needs to come to the table, shelve the tantrum profanity, and explain what it's doing in terms that the average consumer can understand. Wireless companies have spent years, if not decades, landing at the bottom of consumer satisfaction indexes, typically because of one chronic bugbear: A lack of transparency. Today's digital reality simply won't put up with it.

Photo © Gil C/Shutterstock.com

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