Wireless carrier T-Mobile found itself embroiled in controversy in November after it rolled out a new service called Binge On, which promised to lift some major limits off video streaming from users’ wireless devices.
At that time, some questioned whether Binge On was living up to its promise. Now, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is claiming the service does not optimize video streams but instead throttles them. T-Mobile could not immediately be reached for comment.
When it rolled out the service, T-Mobile promised customers could freely stream video from HBO, Hulu, Netflix, Showtime, Sling TV, STARZ, WatchESPN and other cable providers to which they subscribed. The streaming video from these services doesn't count against the customers' high-speed data usage and there are no hidden charges involved in what T-Mobile has dubbed “Un-carrier X,” according to the company.
Slate writer Marvin Ammori first pointed out that T-Mobile is applying its optimization practice -- which essentially streams video at a bitrate equal to 480p and good enough for a small screen -- "to all video on its network for subscribers within all data plans."
Throttling and More Throttling
“We were curious what exactly this optimization technology involved, so we decided to test it out for ourselves. We posted a video on one of our servers and tried accessing it via a T-Mobile LTE connection using various methods and under various conditions,” said Jeremy Gillula, a staff technologist at EFF, in a statement. “All of the tests were done with an account that had Binge On enabled, in the same physical location and at roughly the same time of day, using the same phone.”
The findings confirmed that T-Mobile throttles all HTML5 video steams to about 1.5 Mps when Binge On is enabled. This happens even when the phone is equipped to download at higher speeds and even when the video provider is not participating in Binge On, Gillula said.
The bottom line: T-Mobile is artificially slowing download speeds for customers who tap into Binge On, even if they are downloading videos to watch later or if they are downloading to other devices through tethered connections, according to the EFF.
EFF also found that T-Mobile is throttling video downloads even when the file name does not indicate the file is a video. Finally, EFF’s testing revealed that T-Mobile’s video optimization doesn't really change or improve video streaming for mobile device delivery, so ultimately optimization is nothing more than throttling at the end of the day.
“T-Mobile has claimed that this practice isn't really ‘throttling,’ but we disagree. It's clearly not ‘optimization,’ since T-Mobile doesn't alter the actual content of the video streams in any way. Even the term ‘downgrading’ is inaccurate, because that would mean video streams are simply being given a lower priority than other traffic,” said Gillula.
“If that were true, then in the absence of higher priority traffic, videos should stream at the same throughput as any other content," he added. "But that's not the case: our tests show that video streams are capped at around 1.5 Mbps, even when the LTE connection and the rest of T-Mobile's network can support higher throughput between the customer and the server.”
We caught up with Jeff Kagan, an independent telecom analyst, to get his thoughts on the controversy. He told us the EFF study is a “real pinch” to T-Mobile Binge On. He said he wondered if the real problem comes from the fact that T-Mobile has the least wireless spectrum compared to AT&T Mobility, Verizon Wireless and Sprint.
“Wireless carriers need more wireless spectrum and the problem is the supply is limited. If T-Mobile is quietly throttling network speeds to all video, not just Binge On, that could be embarrassing to them," he said, adding this is not what customers want.
“T-Mobile has seen rapid growth in recent years, however they have very little spectrum," Kagan said. "That’s the pinch. Is their rapid growth putting a strain on their ability to deliver video? It will be interesting to see how T-Mobile explains and deals with this.”
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