Carrier vs. Content: YouTube Claims T-Mobile is Throttling Video Stream

by Matt Klassen on January 6, 2016

25404-09b81213_368_207In early November T-Mobile unveiled its latest Un-Carrier promotion, its Binge-On service, which zero-rates certain online video streams so they don’t count against customers’ data caps. While the promotion itself has garnered attention from the Federal Communications Commission regarding potential Net Neutrality violations (after the FCC lauded the promotion of course), another wrinkle has appeared in this story, as YouTube, one of the content providers not included in T-Mobile zero-rated service, has claimed that the carrier is throttling its video stream, interfering with its video traffic and thus reducing the overall viewing experience for end users.

“Reducing data charges can be good for users, but it doesn’t justify throttling all video services, especially without explicit user consent,” a YouTube spokesman said.

But in Orwellian fashion, T-Mobile has defended its practice, stating that the company isn’t “throttling” YouTube traffic at all, it is simply “optimizing” it for mobile devices, meaning it is downgrading the quality of the video in an effort to improve the streaming experience while helping to decongest the carrier’s busy wireless network.

Strangely enough, though, I happen to think T-Mobile is in the right, particularly given that YouTube’s complaint regarding the unauthorized altering of video streams would be considerably more compelling if the popular streaming video service didn’t do exactly the same thing to its own users.

Now this wouldn’t be the first time carriers had throttled a network yet explained it away as “network optimization” or some other hogwash, but as I mentioned, in this case T-Mobile seems to be attempting to do something with tangible benefits for the vast majority of its users, downgrading the overall quality of streaming video to optimize it for mobile devices, while giving users who don’t want to be part of such a program an easy opt-out option.

As T-Mobile explains in this statement:

Using the term “throttle” is misleading. We aren’t slowing down YouTube or any other site. In fact, because video is optimized for mobile devices, streaming from these sites should be just as fast, if not faster than before. A better phrase is “mobile optimized” or a less flattering “downgraded” is also accurate.

So perhaps this is a nothing story, given that T-Mobile has been fairly transparent about its efforts to optimize all video streams for mobile, lowering the overall quality of the video in an effort to give users the best viewing experience possible on a mobile device, while reducing the amount of wasted data that is lost when trying to shove a full HD picture onto a small mobile screen.

But for its part, however, YouTube feels targeted, primarily because T-Mobile is interfering with its video stream while not including it (yet) in its Binge On zero-rating program.

Of course YouTube’s complaints may end up falling on deaf ears, given that T-Mobile has been forthright in explaining that users can always opt out of this mobile optimization effort, and thus resume watching full HD quality video on a screen far too small to reap the benefits of such high quality content, and the fact that YouTube’s chief complaint, that T-Mobile should require explicit user consent before altering the video feed, seems to contradict the streaming video company’s own policy:

To give you the best viewing experience possible on your computer, YouTube adjusts the quality of your video stream from standard definition (such as 240p or 360p) to high definition (720p or 1080p), based on the speed of your Internet connection (bandwidth). This is why you may notice that the quality of your video changes as you watch videos. 

In the end, I can see why YouTube may feel the need to cry ‘foul’ in regards to T-Mobile’s optimization program, given that the streaming site is not included on the carrier’s list of zero-rated services and yet its content is being downgraded without user consent. But as YouTube’s own policies show, users don’t need to give consent to have their video traffic altered, and given that T-Mobile has been transparent about the entire thing likely means the FCC will likely overreact with excessive punitive measures against T-Mobile, once again demonstrating the Commission’s inability to effectively manage the online world.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. Follow by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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