Internet lobby takes aim at T-Mobile's 'Binge On' program

A trade group representing Internet companies on Tuesday warned that T-Mobile appears to be slowing traffic to all video streaming services, regardless of whether they are participating in its Binge On program that allows customers to stream some video for free.

“T-Mobile's new ‘streaming optimization’ program appears to involve throttling of all video traffic, across all data plans, regardless of network congestion,” said Michael Beckerman, the president and CEO of the Internet Association, in a statement.

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“Reducing data charges for entire classes of applications can be legitimate and benefit consumers, so long as clear notice and choice is provided to service providers and consumers,” he said. “However, a reasonably designed zero-rating program does not include the throttling of traffic for services or consumers that do not participate.” 

The Binge On program allows T-Mobile customers to stream video through participating services like Netflix without using up their monthly allotment of data. T-Mobile may stream some video to Binge On users at a lower quality, which uses less data. 

YouTube is reportedly concerned about the program, telling The Wall Street Journal that lowering data charges “doesn’t justify throttling all video services, especially without explicit user consent.”

The practice of not charging customers for select data usage is called "zero-rating" and has become increasingly common, with AT&T and Verizon rolling out options for companies to sponsor data use.

But some worry that it could violate the principle of net neutrality, meaning that all traffic on the Internet should be treated the same, regardless of what it is or where it’s coming from.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last week sent letters to T-Mobile, AT&T and Comcast asking them to come in and discuss programs that might be described as zero-rating. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler insists that the request shouldn’t be seen as part of a formal investigation, but simply a regulator trying to keep abreast of changes in the marketplace.

T-Mobile, for its part, says it does not believe it is violating the net neutrality regulations the FCC passed earlier this year, which include a prohibition on throttling.

“This program provides both great customer choice and industry innovation that encourages competition and we believe it is absolutely in line with net neutrality rules,” the company said in a statement.