T-Mobile will now let customers stream video from services like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Go without having it count toward their mobile data plans, the company announced today at its 10th Uncarrier event in Los Angeles. The plan, called Binge On, builds on the company's Music Freedom initiative, which broke out music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music from customers' data plans starting last year.
Though Binge On includes 24 streaming video services, YouTube — and its new paid subscription service YouTube Red — is notably absent from the list. Another big catch with the plan is T-Mobile's decision to cap streams at "DVD-quality," which means you'll be watching at 480p. That's far below the 1080p standard we've come to expect with modern mobile internet speeds. T-Mobile says 480p offers "outstanding quality" on a smartphone, but it plans to upscale the video streams as newer mobile networking technology improves. The company did confirm that when you're on Wi-Fi, Binge On will not cap the quality.
Binge On joins Music Freedom in giving customers free streaming
T-Mobile CEO John Legere says Binge On should help his company claim more customers from rivals AT&T and Verizon, which lead T-Mobile in US subscribers. "Most of the carriers in the US don’t even want to be in this business, but they’re stuck," Legere said. "There’s one way they can get out: hand us their customers one at a time." T-Mobile has added 1 million net subscribers for the last 10 quarters thanks to its aggressive schemes, which is helping wean the US telecom industry off two-year contracts. The success is also due in part to Legere's profanity-fueled persona and his willingness to incinerate his competitors in public statements and on social media.
T-Mobile hired actor Aaron Paul — who name-dropped Evan Blass, the reputable tech leaker that reported a rumor of the news last month — to be the face of the marketing blitz. Binge On, which comes at no extra cost, will automatically start for every T-Mobile customer with a 3GB or higher data plan on November 19th, but customers can turn the Binge On feature off on T-Mobile's website if they so choose. There is no way to do so from your smartphone.
The company also announced that it's doubling the amount of data on each of its plans with small price increases to each tier. T-Mobile used to offer plans with 1GB, 3GB, and 5GB of data, as well as a $80 a month unlimited data plan. Those tiers are now 2GB, 6GB, and 10GB, while the unlimited plan is now $95 a month for a single line. The company also has a new a month Family Match plan that gives up two or more people an individual pool of data so long as everyone agrees to pay for the same amount. The goal here is to both appease customers, but also chastise AT&T and Verizon, which still charge customers for going over their monthly allotted data amount. Legere said onstage that the total amount of overage fees collected this year by the greater telecom industry will amount to an estimated $2.4 billion.
T-Mobile John Legere points out an overage charge counter installed onstage at the Uncarrier event.
Binge On, though consumer friendly, is sure to be met with criticism. Prioritizing certain companies' services over others' to entice and retain customers — a practice known as zero-rating — may be anti-competitive in nature, leading to the stifling of smaller, less popular services that contribute to a smartphone owner's data plan.
The logic is that users of Pono's music service may flock to Spotify and the products of companies who strike deals with T-Mobile. Protecting the internet from this type of prioritization is part of the core pillar of net neutrality that asserts all internet traffic should be treated equal. Of course, it's less insidious than the implementation of fast lanes and throttling customers' data speeds. But zero-rating is a murky gray area without sound legal footing in the eyes of regulators.
Legere has often avoided commenting on the subject in clear, straightforward terms, choosing instead to tweet out somewhat contradictory claims. For instance, Legere in November of last year tweeted that he was fearful of government regulation. He was responding at the time to the debate around the FCC reclassifying internet providers' offerings as telecommunications services, which would give the commission more regulatory authority. "Keep the Internet open but don’t let the FCC kill competition with overzealous regulation," he wrote.
Zero-rating is a murky legal gray area
Later, after The Verge wrote about Legere's comment, he clarified that he was in favor of net neutrality principles like "no discrimination" and "no blocking." However, the company's Music Freedom, and now Video Freedom, plans effectively do just that. Prioritizing one company means discriminating against another unless every single bit of music or video streamed over T-Mobile's network is exempt from a customer's data plan. That is not the case as it stands now.
Legere was more concise at a news conference back in March, saying he thinks his company is in the clear. "I’m fairly confident that everything we are doing, including Music Freedom, will be allowed," he said. "I have enough assurances that the way we run our business is acceptable in the scope of what’s taking place."
"This is not a net neutrality problem."
Onstage today, Legere said any company can apply to join the Binge On program. "Anyone who can meet our technical requirement, we’ll include," he said. "This is not a net neutrality problem." Legere pointed to the fact that Binge On doesn't charge providers for inclusion and customers don't pay to access it.
The FCC voted in February of this year to reinstate stricter net neutrality rules, giving the commission the authority to regulate service providers and prevent companies from unlawfully interfering with internet traffic. Though the FCC is facing strong opposition from entities now trying to overturn those rules, it does have the room to begin investigating internet providers' business practices. T-Mobile's Binge On and Music Freedom may be subject to such scrutiny, though the FCC last considered the latter to be a "lesser concern" compared with more apparent net neutrality threats.