If you watched T-Mobile’s Un-Carrier X press conference yesterday, you’re probably pretty excited about its new “Binge On” service, which lets you stream content from 24 streaming services without that content counting toward your monthly data allotment.
It’s compelling on the surface and I think a lot of consumers are going to be really, really happy with what T-Mobile has to offer. But I want us all to sit down and think for a second about what this means for everyone, because it’s really scary.
Binge On is available for T-Mobile Simple Choice customers who opt-in to the service. It’s also available for any streaming service provider that wants to offer its content to T-Mobile. Streams are provided at DVD quality, or 480p, according to T-Mobile. It can be turned off through a simple call to T-Mobile representative, through the app, or online through a Web portal.
Because of this, T-Mobile thinks that this isn’t a problem for folks who are concerned about net neutrality, but it is a problem. A really big problem, and it’s opening Pandora’s box.
Let me quickly refresh your memory with the definition of net neutrality. Net neutrality is: “the principle that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites.”
During his talk yesterday, T-Mobile CEO John Legere championed the strength of his mobile network. Legere argued it’s more widespread, and reliable, thanks to new low frequency spectrum. And it’s true, that spectrum really helps. He also suggested Verizon threw a bunch of marketing dollars and improvements into its network because it was scared. Good. Competition is great. But talking that big game while at the same time introducing a service that’s capped at a low resolution, which is somehow acceptable to everyone, is a problem.
In other words, Legere went up on stage and told you how great his network is, but then also, later, said that he’s only offering unlimited video at 480p. Guess the network isn’t that good. Or is it? Is it really great and can T-Mobile actually offer 1080p video or better, but is deciding against it? If it’s sandbagging, that’s a problem. Sure, nothing is being blocked, as the net neutrality definition says, but it’s being purposefully downgraded.
What if T-Mobile, down the road, decides to offer Binge On HD, the same service but with higher quality video for a small additional fee each month? Now suddenly you’re going to be paying for premium services in higher resolutions. Bet you’re glad you ditched your unlimited plan now, aren’t you? And we as consumers will be blind to the fact that, just a few years ago, had video in whatever resolution we wanted because we were never pushed down to 480p in the first place.
What about the content providers? That’s always the concern with big companies controlling the data that passes through their networks. T-Mobile says anyone who meets their requirements can participate at no cost to them. Except there is a cost.
HBO and Hulu and Crackle and Netflix can play ball, but what about start-ups – the college kid in his dorm room – that are just forming? Are they now going to be disadvantaged because they don’t have the development costs or resources to optimize their streams for T-Mobile’s Binge On plan? That gives Hulu, Netflix and others an advantage. T-Mobile customers will surely first choose to use Binge On services, which don’t ding their account data allotments, before going to a service that’s not included. Again, T-Mobile isn’t blocking any service particularly, but it’s giving services a business advantage over those that are not included.
I don’t think T-Mobile is being nefarious. It wants to offer video streams to its customers and 480p is plenty good for lots of people. But it seems that T-Mobile doesn’t see the effects this can have on the industry.
T-Mobile knows Verizon, AT&T and Sprint mimic its plans. Things are going to change fast if we’re not careful. Right now, most of us can stream whatever we want at the highest possible resolution offered up by a provider. But if we sit here and let companies like T-Mobile woo us with “free” services at low resolutions with approved content, net neutrality will be a lost memory.