T-Mobile USA’s BingeOn is a smash hit. So what now?

Popular video thing may be 'illegal'. And looks like a witch.

Analysis T-Mobile USA's BingeOn gamble of removing video consumption from its subscribers' data bundles appears to be defying its critics, with large increases in mobile video viewing.

The mobile network, a minnow in the US market that sees itself as the challenger brand, claims some users have doubled their usage, while one partner video site saw a 79 per cent jump in viewing. More significantly, a non-partner site saw a 34 per cent leap in traffic. T-Mobile wouldn’t say who this is, but YouTube owner Google has grumbled about being optimised down to 480 pixels on the mobile network.

Net neutrality ideologues, who helped capture the (constitutionally) independent US telecoms regulator, the FTC, thanks to help from Obama’s White House, have also grumbled, calling the optimisation “throttling”. In the scolding manner of early American Puritans looking for a witch, the groups decided that BingeOn is wicked, and must be stopped.

Tech blogs took up the cry - although it wasn’t clear exactly why. (Apparently it may buffer non-partner content for a second, which isn't exactly a surprise for anyone watching video on mobile). On the extreme end of the ideological scale, neutrality campaigner Professor van Schewick has (predictably) declared it illegal. (pdf)

But the blogs, law professors, and Google-funded groups – including Access Now and the EFF – may have jumped the gun. Users have shrugged off the nannyish warnings, and don’t seem to mind the compromise at all, making the choice to watch more video, even if it’s at a lower resolution. They've voted with their feet (or fingers?), and the market could learn an important lesson.

The BingeOn deal allows you to watch more video, but at a slightly lower quality: T-Mobile optimises the video for its network, so traffic consumption falls by 50 per cent or more.

In addition, videos from content partners including Netflix and HBO don’t count against your traffic allowance. As is the norm in “zero rated” (aka “unmetered”) deals, no money has changed hands between the content partner and the network operator. Netflix likes BingeOn.

The usual reasons for detecting witchcraft neutrality violations are absent. It isn’t compulsory. It isn’t a rent-seeking scheme. It isn’t constraining choice. It isn’t disadvantaging anyone; describing it as "throttling" (which means reducing the speed of throughput over a connection) isn’t really appropriate, to put it politely.

If you’re not inclined to be polite, you could say use of the word "throttling" is emotive and misleading, and designed to alarm the technically illiterate. But we’ll leave the choice to you.

The FCC which previously endorsed such initiatives because they increase consumer welfare and market choice, has called in T-Mobile and networks that “zero rate” some content for a talking to.

Economist Hal Singer, a fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, has a useful piece here on how the FCC can extricate itself from the grip of Google and the neutrality activists.

“Because Google has outsized influence with this FCC, a compulsory retraction of Binge On would be perceived as the triumph of politics over the merits,” he writes, and recommends it hand over squabbles like BingeOn to an independent judge.

Activists may have jumped the shark here, having become so accustomed to barking at telcos, they’ll now bark at anything. Howling at BingeOn implies the public is inherently stupid about the choices individual consumers make.

The public just carries on and ignores them; it appears perfectly happy with the trade-off. T-Mobile says it has served 34 petabytes of video through the scheme.

What impertinence, when Nanny knows best. ®

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