Queue up Netflix: T-Mobile US may unleash the video beast

If a rumor from well-known tech tipster EVLeaks proves true, T-Mobile will soon start exempting mobile video from its data plans. That means customers on its Simple Choice smartphone plans would be able to stream Netflix, HBO Go and other bandwidth-intensive video apps without seeing any data deducted from their monthly allotments.

T-Mobile has already done something similar with audio, letting customers stream several dozen music and internet radio apps without eating into a single megabyte of their data plans (the practice is called zero rating). But video is a much more ravenous monster than audio when it comes to consuming data. According to a Cisco Systems study, video accounts for 55 percent of all mobile data traffic, and that number is only growing. What’s more, many consumers — myself included — have a tendency to limit their video consumption while on cellular networks, knowing that a few hours of video can drain all but the biggest data buckets.

If T-Mobile starts zero rating video it would not only give its customers a free pass on the biggest source of traffic on its networks, but in practice, it would also invite its customers to consume even more of it. Would T-Mobile be so bold? EVLeaks, which is essentially the Twitter feed of journalist Evan Blass, is generally a reliable source for these kinds of scoops, and I would guess that if any U.S. operator is going to throw open the gates to unfettered video, it would be T-Mobile.

T-Mobile is one of the few operators to still offer an unlimited data plan to customers (and those customers would be unaffected by this policy either way), but as with all unlimited plans out there, there are a few catches. T-Mobile has a “fair use” policy giving it the right to slow down its heaviest users’ connection speeds when the network is congested. It’s safe to assume those same restrictions would apply to unlimited video on its other plans.

“Unlimited” is really more a matter of perception than practice, but T-Mobile’s Un-carrier marketing is focused on the perception of breaking down barriers that other operators place in front of their customers. I’m sure the new program would be a hit among consumers and it would encourage a lot more video consumption on T-Mobile’s network.

There could be a dark lining to this cloud, though. Depending on how the policy is implemented, it could have some big implications for net neutrality. If T-Mobile allows unfettered video streaming to specific popular sites, like Netflix or YouTube, but continues to meter all data from other sites, it will create a big imbalance in the mobile internet. If you know you can watch Netflix to your heart’s content but will get hit with overage fees if you watch Hulu, which app are you going to use?

That puts T-Mobile in a position to pick winners and losers when it comes to mobile streaming, and it makes it much harder for a new video startup to get noticed by T-Mobile’s customers. Ideally T-Mobile would apply this unlimited policy to all video traffic. That would level the playing field, but it’s also technically much harder to pull off.

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