EFF: T-Mobile breaks net neutrality rules with Binge On service

In February 2015, the FCC has approved net neutrality rules “to preserve the Internet as a platform for innovation, free, expression and economic growth.”

In short, the rules should prevent broadband providers from blocking access to legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices; from impairing or degrading (effectively throttling) lawful Internet traffic on the basis of content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices; and from favoring some lawful Internet traffic over other lawful traffic in exchange for money.

Realistically, it’s to be expected that broadband providers will try to find a way around these (or parts of these) rules, and according to the EFF, T-Mobile US is currently doing just that with its Binge On service.

“Back in November, T-Mobile announced a new service for its mobile customers called Binge On, in which video streams from certain websites don’t count against customers’ data caps. The service is theoretically open to all video providers without charge, so long as T-Mobile can recognize and then ‘optimize’ the provider’s video streams to a bitrate equivalent to 480p,” EFF staff technologist Jeremy Gillula pointed out.

“At first glance, this doesn’t sound too harmful—customers can watch more video without worrying about their caps, most will consider 480p to be adequate quality (especially on a small phone screen), and the harms of treating individual video providers differently are diminished when T-Mobile offers the program to any provider for free.”

But customers have been complaining about the quality of streamed videos, and some have been doing experiments to see where the problem is. Spurred by these reports, the EFF decided to check it out for themselves.

They did some testing by streaming videos, and downloading video files (with and without the filename and the HTTP response headers showing that it’s a video file) and large non-video files. Also, they first did this things over HTTP and then over HTTPS.

They discovered that:

  • When Binge On is enabled, T-Mobile throttles all HTML5 video streams and downloads of videos to around 1.5Mps, even if the phone can download at higher speeds
  • T-Mobile has ways (“video-specific protocols/patterns that do not involve the examination of actual content”) of detecting video files even if the filename and HTTP headers say it’s not a video
  • T-Mobile does not actually perform “optimization” of the videos – it does not change the video stream in any way except from throttling its throughput down to 1.5Mbps, and it does so indiscriminately for all videos, whether or not they are provided by partner or not.
  • When the videos are streamed or downloaded over HTTPS, throttling is not performed.

T-Mobile says “throttling” is not the right word for the practice.

“Using the term ‘throttle’ is misleading,” a representative of the company told DSLReports.com. “We aren’t slowing down YouTube or any other site. In fact, because video is optimized for mobile devices, streaming from these sites should be just as fast, if not faster than before. A better phrase is ‘mobile optimized’ or a less flattering ‘downgraded’ is also accurate.”

But, as the EFF points out, the videos are not actually optimized in any way. Even T-Mobile confirmed this.

“Even the term ‘downgrading’ is inaccurate, because that would mean video streams are simply being given a lower priority than other traffic. If that were true, then in the absence of higher priority traffic, videos should stream at the same throughput as any other content. But that’s not the case: our tests show that video streams are capped at around 1.5Mbps, even when the LTE connection and the rest of T-Mobile’s network can support higher throughput between the customer and the server,” Gillula noted.

The EFF has called on the FCC to investigate the matter. In the meantime, they say that not throttling videos by providers who are not partners would be a good way to make amends to the providers. Also, users should be allowed to opt for the service (instead of being required to opt out), and should be told clearly and explicitly what this entails.