T-Mobile's "Binge On" is just throttling for all video

T-Mobile claims that its Binge On service (video that doesn't count against subscribers' data-caps) is a bit of pre-processing magic that makes the videos you watch load with less jitter and buffering, but that's not what's going on under the hood.

EFF tested out T-Mobile's Binge On service with various videos and discovered:

* Binge On throttles all HTML5 video to 1.5mb/s, even when the device can receive more, even for service providers that don't opt in to Binge On, and even for downloads, not streams

* Binge On throttles HTML5 video even when the file-name and HTTP Content-Type headers don't mark the file as video — meaning that T-Mobile is performing some kind of deep packet inspection on all its customers' connections, looking for videos to throttle

* Binge On doesn't optimize the video it throttles to play smoothly at 1.5mb/s — it just slows down all video and crosses its fingers and prays

It gets worse. This isn't just a violation of Net Neutrality and a violation of T-Mobile's regulatory obligations — it's also a deceptive trade practice that punishes users who watch video from non-Binge-On services twice: first, by slowing down their video; and second, by charging the data against the user's account as though it hadn't been deliberately degraded.

What should T-Mobile do instead? One option would be to stop throttling the video of providers who haven't signed up to be zero-rated in Binge On, regardless of the status of the T-Mobile customer. This would address the complaints of video providers, since only edge providers who actually chose to be throttled would have their videos throttled.

But the best option would be to make Binge On opt-in (instead of opt-out), with clear disclosure that opting in will throttle all video traffic. Many of T-Mobile's customers don't realize that Binge On has this unfortunate side effect―especially since T-Mobile has buried the fact that Binge On throttles all video in their fine print. If T-Mobile were to be clear with its customers that enabling Binge On meant all of their video would be throttled, and then ask them whether or not they wanted to opt in, then they could obtain meaningful customer consent.

As an aside, it's also obvious that T-Mobile is capable of recognizing video streams from providers who aren't enrolled in Binge On. Given that, we don't understand why they require providers to enroll in Binge On in order to get their videos zero-rated. If T-Mobile truly wants to be neutral, then all throttled videos should be exempt from customer data caps.

Of course, this entire argument operates on the assumption that data caps are necessary on mobile networks, since zero-rating only makes sense when there's a cap for data to be exempt from. And even if you accept that data caps are necessary, whether or not zero-rating is a neutral practice is a completely separate question. Either way, however, we don't think exemptions from data caps should necessarily be heralded as pro-customer moves—but these are topics for a separate blog post.

EFF Confirms: T-Mobile's Binge On Optimization is Just Throttling, Applies Indiscriminately to All Video
[Jeremy Gillula/EFF]