T-Mobile offers free video streaming — with a big catch

Tony Wagner Nov 10, 2015

T-Mobile offers free video streaming — with a big catch

Tony Wagner Nov 10, 2015

T-Mobile will soon let users stream video from Hulu, HBO, ESPN and other services without running up their data plan, but the announcement has some questioning T-Mobile’s stance on net neutrality.

The “Binge On” initiative, announced Friday in Los Angeles, starts later this month for subscribers on data plans at least 3 gigabytes or higher. The promotion covers 24 streaming services, including Netflix, Sling and several premium cable and sports channels. It’s similar to “Music Freedom,” another T-Mobile promotion that offers unlimited streaming Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, Rdio, Tidal and more without data charges.

As streaming overtakes physical media, and with mobile video exploding, T-Mobile is presenting Binge On as a respite from steep data overage charges.

“Together, the carriers are projected to rake in a record $2.4 billion this year from overage penalties—up a staggering 60% from $1.5 billion just last year,” the company says in a press release announcing the promotion. It’s consistent with T-Mobile’s “Un-carrier” brand, and CEO John Legere has called the move “net neutrality-friendly,” but activists aren’t so sure.

“It’s a cheap sales trick,” Free Press policy director Matt Wood told the Washington Post. “First you fabricate a problem for customers; then you make that problem go away and act like you’ve done them a huge favor.”

The classic net-neutrality argument is against charging more to access certain parts of the internet — Netflix is popular? It’ll cost you more to get it. But what T-Mobile’s doing — a practice called “zero-rating” — could still give existing players a leg up over smaller companies not partnered with T-Mobile. It could also let the “Un-carrier” exclude whoever it wants. Re/Code notes that YouTube, Facebook and Snapchat, all huge players in mobile video, are not included in Binge On. 

Legere told reporters streaming services aren’t paying T-Mobile to be a part of Binge On. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other deals being made; Sling is offering T-Mobile customers a 30 percent discount on one package, for example.

Marketplace Tech corespondent Molly Wood brought up zero-rating generally and T-Mobile specifically when she interviewed FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler back in July. He noted that the practice can be used in a variety of ways, and the FCC would look at it on a case-by-case basis.

“If zero-rating ends up being something that is anti-openness or anti-consumer in [a] specific case then we want to be able to step in and say ‘No that’s not right,'” Wheeler said. “But we’re not gonna sit here and pre-judge on a blanket basis.”

The fact that T-Mobile appears to be giving away access — and users can opt out of Binge On whenever they want — means it could be tough for the FCC to act, the Verge senior editor T.C. Sottek wrote in a column shortly after the announcement.

Capping data at all gives the four major carriers loads of power, Sottek writes, and letting certain companies flout those caps gives them more power still. “Its spin as a pro-consumer benefit obscures the manipulation of the broadband market that’s happening right under our noses.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the companies involved in “Binge On,” Verizon’s Go90 streaming service will be included. The text has been updated.

We’re here to help you navigate this changed world and economy.

Our mission at Marketplace is to raise the economic intelligence of the country. It’s a tough task, but it’s never been more important.

In the past year, we’ve seen record unemployment, stimulus bills, and reddit users influencing the stock market. Marketplace helps you understand it all, will fact-based, approachable, and unbiased reporting.

Generous support from listeners and readers is what powers our nonprofit news—and your donation today will help provide this essential service. For just $5/month, you can sustain independent journalism that keeps you and thousands of others informed.