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YouTube puts T-Mobile US on naughty list for throttling all vids to 480p

No Christmas cheer amid scrap over toll-free streaming and net neutrality

By Kieren McCarthy, 23 Dec 2015

YouTube has waded into the row over T-Mobile US's Binge On service.

Binge On launched in November, and lets people watch unlimited amounts of video from Netflix, Hulu and other selected providers: the streams do not count against subscribers' monthly download caps.

There is a catch, though. These toll-free videos are streamed at 480p resolution.

YouTube refused to join T-Mob's service. This week, the web giant said its videos are being throttled to 480p anyway, and it's furious.

Industry body the Internet Association has put out a statement on Binge On that states: "T-Mobile’s new 'streaming optimization' program appears to involve throttling all video traffic, across all data plans, regardless of network congestion… Reducing data charges for entire classes of applications can be legitimate and benefit consumers, so long as clear notice and choice is provided to service providers and consumers.

"However, a reasonably designed zero-rating program does not include the throttling of traffic for services or consumers that do not participate."

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, a YouTube spokesman made the same point, saying: "Reducing data charges can be good for users, but it doesn’t justify throttling all video services, especially without explicit user consent."

Hero or zero

The practice of "zero rating", aka toll-free downloads, has become an increasingly contentious issue: a number of big companies, including Facebook, have found ways to provide their services online without it hitting people's wallets due to data usage. The problem with this is: who ultimately pays for these transfers, and what happens to those who don't play ball?

T-Mobile US has 24 companies in its Binge On scheme. In order to limit the amount of data used by its subscribers, it prevents high-definition videos from being streamed. YouTube offers a wide range of resolutions, all the way up to the currently pointless 8K. But you'll be forced onto 480p anyway if you're on T-Mobile US.

With a fast 4G/LTE connection, it is possible to download higher definition video, and many smartphones now can handle 1080p resolution. But at that resolution, the videos will use way more data than 480p copies.

Even before YouTube raised its concerns, T-Mobile US was already under fire for offering the service at all since many fear T-Mob will demand money from videos providers that wish to be a part of Binge On. This could price smaller outfits out of the market, dealing a blow to competition and innovation.

Enter the FCC

That fear of controlled access by operators is what was behind the FCC's Open Internet Order, better known as net neutrality.

The US communications regulator has already sent a letter to T-Mob asking it for more details on the program. (FCC chairman Tom Wheeler had initially described Binge On as "highly innovative and highly competitive.") The watchdog has also sent letter to Comcast and AT&T on the same issue over services they is said to be readying.

"As you may be aware, concerns have been expressed about the Binge On program," the FCC letter to T-Mobile sent earlier this month reads. "For example, some have argued that the technical requirements of the Binge On program may harm innovation by making certain video apps more attractive than others. Others have asserted that the reduction of video quality has harmed some users."

The Internet Association referenced the FCC's letter in its statement, saying that it "applauds the FCC for seeking information on this practice and its potential harm on consumers and online applications and services", adding, "we encourage the FCC to keep examining the details of these practices by Internet access providers."

Meanwhile, the usually outspoken T-Mobile US CEO John Legere has yet to say anything about the controversy, with the company simply pointing requests for information to a tweet from Legere that says T-Mob customers have the ability to turn the feature off. ®

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