T-Mobile lashing out in net neutrality spat

T-Mobile lashing out in net neutrality spat
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T-Mobile’s bombastic CEO John Legere is throwing punches ahead of what could be the first high-profile test of the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules. 

The FCC has only cautiously waded into the debate about T-Mobile’s new Binge On video program. But outside advocates have raised strong net neutrality charges that the program is capping or reducing the download speeds of all video played over its network — a technique known as “throttling.” 

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Legere has called that criticism a matter of semantics and picked a fight with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the respected digital rights group that made the allegations. 

“Who the f--k are you anyway EFF, why are you stirring up so much trouble and who pays you?” Legere said in a video message Thursday. He also called the charges “bullshit” and his critics “jerks.”

It was typical of Legere’s aggressive style on social media and during public appearances, where he regularly spars with rival wireless carriers. 

His comments about EFF alluded to past reports that the non-profit has received large donations from Google. EFF shot back by saying the advocacy group “exists because of the donations of tens of thousands of regular people,” and made a call to action to its donors.  

In addition to the attacks on EFF, T-Mobile has said Binge On does not violate net neutrality rules because it offers choice and customers seem to like it.  

T-Mobile says video streaming has shot up 12 percent since it was implemented. About 40 video providers are signed up and another 50 are waiting in line, according to the company.

“If you don’t like the program, just pop, turn it off. And you can turn it on an hour later if you want,” Neville Ray, T-Mobile’s chief technology officer, said this week.  

Unveiled last November, Binge On exempts video from certain approved providers, like Netflix or HBO, from counting against a T-Mobile customer's monthly data cap. Any video provider is allowed to sign up for free as long as they agree to certain technical specifications. 

The second prong of the program caps the download speed of all video played over the network, even from providers like YouTube that have not enrolled. That cap uses less customer data but lowers HD video quality, which T-Mobile says is largely unnecessary for a mobile phone’s small screen. 

The alleged “throttling” of customer download speeds has been the primary concern for net neutrality advocates, even as they have raised additional worries about the exemption of some video through the controversial practice known as zero-rating.

The FCC last year approved strict rules against throttling Internet traffic as part of its broader regulations, which are currently being challenged in court. 

Last month, YouTube, which is controlled by Google, and the Internet Association, a lobbying group, raised concerns about T-Mobile throttling without explicit customer consent. 

“As a purely legal matter, T-Mobile cannot easily defend its actions by arguing that this discrimination is good for its users,” tech advocate Marvin Ammori wrote last month. 

EFF said it has no plans at the moment to file a formal FCC complaint against T-Mobile. It has asked the agency to investigate. It also pressed T-Mobile to run the program on an “opt-in” basis, rather than as the default option, and to make clear disclosures about the throttling. 

The FCC has been watching T-Mobile since the program started. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has called Binge On innovative but has also requested more information.

“We want to ensure that we have all the facts to understand how this service relates to the commission’s goal of maintaining a free and open Internet while incentivizing investment and innovation from all sources,” the FCC’s wireless chief Roger Sherman told T-Mobile in a letter last month.

The letter called for a meeting before next Friday with T-Mobile and others offering similar services. T-Mobile told The Hill it will meet with the commission within that timeframe, but offered no other details.