T-Mobile Seems to be Throttling Streaming Video After All

by Matt Klassen on January 12, 2016

T-Mobile_Throttles_YouTubeIt seems the details of T-Mobile’s Binge On streaming video service are not quite as cut and dry as they initially seemed to be. Late in December online video service YouTube claimed that T-Mobile was throttling its video stream, although the site was not included on the list of exempt streaming video providers, arguing that it was violating the Federal Communications Commission’s Net Neutrality standards.

T-Mobile responded by saying that its new proprietary technology was set to “optimize” all video streams, whether they were zero-rated through the Binge On program or not, but explained that the traffic was not being indiscriminately slowed, but in fact the quality of the video was being lowered for mobile devices so that the traffic could actually move faster. Reduced video quality and higher streaming speeds, doesn’t seem so bad actually.

But at the heart of this ongoing debate is T-Mobile’s “optimization” feature, a nebulous proprietary technology that the company claims doesn’t slow traffic, but in fact simply delivers it at a lower bitrate (480p), speeding up streaming video for all of its customers. So the question becomes, are such claims true? The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online civil liberties group, put T-Mobile to the test, and the results do not bode well for the Un-Carrier.

In regards to the recent YouTube complaint stating that T-Mobile was slowing the speeds of all online streaming video, the carrier responded, “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.”

The company went on to explain, “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”

Even as a strong proponent of Net Neutrality, even I had to admit that there was value in this optimization process, in that 480p quality video on a mobile device seems like a fair trade-off for faster streaming service. But just what goes in to T-Mobile’s network optimization? That’s what the EFF attempted to find out.

The first discovery EFF made turning its T-Mobile Binge On tests was that the carrier did indeed slow all HTML5 video streams to around 1.5Mps, regardless of whether the video was being streamed or downloaded. This finding seems to indicate that there is no actual optimization that is occurring, simply a reduction in data speeds (but more on that in a second).

Second, EFF found that T-Mobile’s proprietary optimization technology throttled video even when the filename and http header indicate the file is not a video file. This raises questions as to how T-Mobile’s technology knows that this content is streaming video, when all normal indicators would say it’s not.

Third, the EFF found that T-Mobile’s explanation that it is optimizing video streams is a misnomer, given that “T-Mobile’s video “optimization” doesn’t actually alter or enhance the video stream for delivery to a mobile device over a mobile network in any way.” This means that the only thing T-Mobile does to “optimize” the video stream, at least in EFF’s findings, is to throttle the traffic.

As EFF explains, “T-Mobile’s ‘optimization’ consists entirely of throttling the video stream’s throughput down to 1.5Mbps. If the video is more than 480p and the server sending the video doesn’t have a way to reduce or adapt the bitrate of the video as it’s being streamed, the result is stuttering and uneven streaming—exactly the opposite of the experience T-Mobile claims their “optimization” will have.” [italics mine]

T-Mobile has confirmed that it does not actually optimize the video stream in any way, and depends on the provider to recognize the throttled connection speed and alter the video bitrate accordingly, a far cry from what the carrier implied its revolutionary new optimization technology could do. So in sum, T-Mobile slows video traffic and expects the video provider to do all the optimization work to make the video run smoothly, not quite as revolutionary as I first thought.

So setting aside the already contentious issue of whether zero-rating certain Internet traffic violates Net Neutrality, it seems fairly clear that despite its explanations, that T-Mobile is clearly throttling all video streams, even those not connected to its Binge On program, and that such a practice is in clear violation of the FCC’s regulations.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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