T-Mobile US customers get to “binge” on video, but there’s a subtle price to pay

The rumors are true. T-Mobile US is exempting video streaming from its core smartphone customers, meaning customers can feast on Netflix, HBO Go, ESPN and flicks and clips of 21 other media apps without worrying about draining their data plans.

T-Mobile announced the new program, called Binge On, at the 10th installment of its Un-carrier event (The recorded live stream is embedded below, but given’s CEO John Legere’s fondness of expletives, it may not be suitable for work). Binge On will apply to any T-Mobile subscriber with a Simple Choice plan of 3 GBs of higher (obviously T-Mobile’s unlimited plan customers are unaffected), and it comes on top of the Music Freedom service, which exempts — or zero-rates — all data from a dozens of audio streaming apps.

T-Mobile even included DirecTV, which is now owned by AT&T, and Verizon’s Go90 app in Binge On, basically giving its larger competitors – and frequent targets of Legere’s derision – unfettered video access to its network. YouTube, however, was missing from the list entirely, highlighting the controversial downside to these kind of zero-rating policies.

As The Verge’s T.C. Sottek rather colorfully points out, Binge On and Music Freedom offer short-term benefits for consumers, but they strike long-term blows for net neutrality. The Internet works best as a level playing field where any app, service or media outlet can compete on equal footing for a consumer’s attention. But by exempting data traffic for specific companies, you create a lopsided internet where brands handpicked by T-Mobile gain a significant advantage. If you know you can watch Netflix on your phone for hours without restrictions but will drain your data bucket by watching YouTube, which streaming service would you choose?

YouTube is such a popular service that Google likely won’t suffer much by its exclusion in Binge On. The real victims are the small guys. A new video startup already has trouble capturing the attention of the masses. That task becomes even more difficult if consumers become naturally averse to any video that doesn’t get zero-rated.

I’m not saying a program that gives consumers a free pass on video is a bad idea – inherently it’s a great idea. But it has to be fair. Instead of creating a list of favored companies, T-Mobile should simply exempt all video traffic from its data plans, regardless of source. That’s a difficult thing to do technically, but such a policy would encourage innovation in mobile video rather than inhibit it. Consumers are much more likely to try out a new video app or service if they’re no longer afraid they’ll wreck their data plans.

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