Correction: A previous version of this post contained details from a T-Mobile executive who the company has since said misspoke and provided inaccurate information. A T-Mobile spokesman says the company has not spoken with the FCC about Binge On specifically, but it has no reason to believe regulators will have any issues with the program.
T-Mobile says it has no reason to believe the Federal Communications Commission will have any issues with its offer to let customers stream some video content without it counting against their data plans.
“I think last week, when people didn’t understand what was going on, there was a big swirl. But everyone we’ve talked to kind of nods their head,” said Grant Castle, T-Mobile vice president of engineering services. “I think they get it.”
The new program, dubbed “Binge On,” exempts video streamed through 24 different apps, including Netflix, HBO Go and Sling TV, from counting against customers’ 4G LTE data limits. Essentially, the program will let many T-Mobile customers use select streaming services for free when it goes into effect on Sunday.
T-Mobile says it’s able to offer the service because it has new technology that allows videos to stream with three times the data efficiency. It plays at a lower video resolution, but the company says the human eye won’t even be able to tell the difference when it’s played on a small smartphone screen.
The offer was announced yesterday, but the Binge On news leaked more than a week before T-Mobile had the chance pull the curtain off its most recent “Un-carrier” move. Almost immediately, it raised questions around net neutrality, and whether or not this kind of program was legal in a world where Internet service providers — like T-Mobile — are required to treat all web content the same.
Naysayers have called this a clear violation of the basic principles of net neutrality. A group of vocal supporters of a more open Internet have said it’s a slippery slope that could lead to Internet gatekeepers having the ability to hamper free speech, throttle access to some websites and give preferential treatment to others.
T-Mobile, meanwhile, says Binge On doesn’t defy net neutrality at all. Instead, the company says it should be held up as a role model to lead future discussions.
T-Mobile makes it clear that any video content provider that can meet their technical requirements is welcome to join the program, no one is paying to get in and users have the option of opting out altogether. So, the company says, it’s not about giving preferential treatment to certain providers, but instead giving customers what they want.
Legally, this is a gray area.
An FCC spokesman would not comment on whether there will be a formal investigation, other than noting that the FCC looks at each situation like this on a case by case basis.
According to net neutrality rules the regulatory body laid out in March, the agency is open to some policies that exempt web traffic from data limits, a practice known as “zero-rating.” It all depends on how it’s done.
“We are mindful of the concerns raised in the record that sponsored data plans have the potential to distort competition by allowing service providers to pick and choose among content and application providers to feature on different service plans,” the FCC wrote in its Open Internet order. “At the same time, new service offerings, depending on how they are structured, could benefit consumers and competition.”
Castle added that this isn’t a new issue. T-Mobile has exempted some music streaming apps from data limits as part of its “Music Freedom” program since last year and the FCC has never raised concerns.
“The only people making noise about this are kind of theoretical arguments out there by some zealots,” he added. “But I think when it comes down to what customers want — this is it. We want the free and open Internet. We’re not going to play favorites. We want everybody to be part of the party.”