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Ofcom: T-Mobile probe? Er, not really

Operator steps into the firing line after fair-use cut

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T-Mobile's attempt to rein back heavy users of mobile data has put the operator up against the wall, but talk of Ofcom investigations and contract breaches is still premature.

Not that T-Mobile will confirm its stance either way, the operator tells us it is still preparing a statement on the matter (and has been for 24 hours now). Meanwhile, Ofcom assures us that it is "examining" the situation: not "investigating", and certainly not "probing". The regulator will respond to complaints from the public, but for the moment the ball is firmly in T-Mobile's court.

The announcement from T-Mobile – that its idea of fair use was being cut by more than 80 per cent, from 3GB to a mere 500MB – was not handled in the most sensitive fashion. Telling users: "If you want to download, stream and watch video clips, save that stuff for your home broadband" was supposed to sound chummy, but came off sounding arrogant – more like a restrictive parent's rules than a friend's advice. The fact that web browsing is now outside that fair-use cap has passed most customers by, all they see is their headline allowance going down, and they're not happy about it.

T-Mobile's idea is to start differentiating by content type – video streaming and file downloading comes from one pot, while web browsing and email comes from another (never-empty) pot. The former has a fair-use limit of 500MB under the new rules, the latter is unlimited, and the idea is to stop the light data users from subsidising those who want to stream media all day.

And there are many of them: applications such as Orb will stream your audio/video collection to your mobile, consuming massive quantities of bandwidth for the delivery of the X Factor's finest, and those listening don't see any reason why they should pay more than someone who checks their email twice a day. T-Mobile isn't saying you can't stream tunes over its mobile network all day, only that you should pay more for the privilege.

But that's irrelevant if the changes are "likely to cause [consumers] material detriment", as that will let them out of their contracts without penalty. Given the huge handset subsidy network operators claw back over the length of a UK contract, mobile customers are always keen to find a way out – and many will be turning on T-Mobile in the hopes of being let off the hook following this change. The operator reckons only a tiny minority of its customers consume more than 500MB of data anyway, and thus the vast majority can't claim any "material detriment", though it's unlikely to stop them trying.

It will be interesting to see how the operator argues with a customer who claims he's about to ramp up his internet usage, despite previously not having hit 500MB. All the UK operators want to charge more for data, as voice revenue declines, but changing the rules at short notice is just going to rile users and seems excessive when they could just change the price (as Three recently did) instead. ®

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