Skip to main content

Honest question: what does T-Mobile think data actually is?

Honest question: what does T-Mobile think data actually is?


Data is data, except when it’s an obvious net neutrality violation

Share this story

Apple iPhone with T-Mobile logo

Here are two lines from T-Mobile’s latest "Uncarrier" missive, in which the company proclaims that it has "listened to customers" and is changing its new T-Mobile One plans less than two weeks after announcing them.

The first line:

Everyone gets unlimited talk, unlimited text and unlimited high-speed 4G LTE smartphone data on the fastest LTE network in America.

The second line:

With T-Mobile ONE, even video is unlimited at standard definition so you can stream all you want.

At this point it appears that T-Mobile is operating with definitions of "unlimited" and "data" that are are only tangentially related to reality. For example, most people understand the word "unlimited" to mean "without any limits or restrictions," but T-Mobile’s definition clearly means "without any limits except for a hard restriction on HD video that can only be lifted for $3 a day or $25 a month."*

It appears that T-Mobile’s definition of "data" is only tangentially related to reality

And "data" traditionally refers broadly to "information that is stored or produced by a computer," but T-Mobile thinks video is not data, but rather... something else? Trying to decide if T-Mobile thinks an app is "video" or "data" is not a logical exercise — it’s so perplexing that I was forced to make lists:


  • GIFs, which are short, silent video clips
  • Snapchat, which is full of video
  • Instagram, which is full of video
  • iMessage, which people use to send video
  • WhatsApp, which people use to send video
  • Facebook Messenger, which people use to send video
  • FaceTime, which makes video calls
  • Skype, which makes video calls
  • Hangouts, which makes video calls


I asked T-Mobile for the company’s definition of "data" and a spokesperson said "that’s not something I could give you," but suggested that the company was on "the right side of history," and that the goal was to make "unlimited sustainable for the mass market."

That’s an admirable goal! But let’s not dance around the fundamentals of the situation. Net neutrality is the law of the land, and T-Mobile has aggressively pushed the boundaries of net neutrality by manipulating the traffic on its network.

Up until now, its services like BingeOn and Music Freedom have been somewhat traditional zero-rating schemes — you bought a fixed amount of data, and T-Mobile would excuse specific kinds of data from your cap, thereby delivering extra value for the dollar. It’s why the FCC has been somewhat ambivalent about BingeOn when pressed: ultimately, consumers were getting more for their money, and they could opt-out and get exactly what they paid for if they chose. (Most didn’t: T-Mobile says 98 percent of customers left BingeOn untouched.)

T-Mobile One seems like a pretty cut-and-dry violation of net neutrality

But with T-Mobile One, the basic structure has completely changed — the company told me it doesn’t consider the new plan to be zero-rating at all. Now, T-Mobile sells a degraded "unlimited" data service that aggressively limits whatever services it considers "video," and requires additional fees for data that constitutes HD video. That seems like a pretty cut-and-dried violation of basic net neutrality principles!

It’s also a challenge for T-Mobile’s marketing department, which has been rolling out Uncarrier features as surprise value-adds for customers, but now faces a world in which the basic plan offers degraded internet and the real thing costs extra. That’s why the company responded so swiftly to customer confusion — it’s trying to manage the reaction.

T-Mobile’s basic plan offers degraded internet and the real thing costs extra

The first step here is for T-Mobile to offer a concise, fixed definition of what it thinks "data" is. Until the company can at least do that, the games T-Mobile’s playing with the internet aren’t any better than the games AT&T and Verizon have been playing for years.

*T-Mobile will also limit your unlimited data by "deprioritizing" you if you use over 26GB of data, which the company insists is not "throttling," because words no longer have any meaning in 2016.