T-Mobile is throttling, NOT mobile optimizing, EFF reports

January 5, 2016

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While T-Mobile's Binge-On service seems like an attractive offer because of the free video streaming, this Un-Carrier move has raised a number of concerns and complaints from different groups. For one, YouTube complained that the company is downgrading video streaming quality. T-Mobile was then quick to reply that it's not downgrading YouTube videos as they are just mobile optimized.

We all know that data throttling is discouraged especially in the United States but apparently, it's still being practiced by some. The carrier said this "optimizing" the videos are for Binge On customers only but someone noted that it's also being applied to all videos. This means even non-Binge On customers are receiving lower-res videos by default. The idea seems okay to some people but there are people who prefer to watch and are willing to pay for hi-res videos. Unfortunately, T-Mobile is doing the optimization throughout the network to stretch the customers' data while video streaming. Resolution is usually 480p according to some users.

Even EFF, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, got curious about the issue and so they decided to do some tests. The results confirmed that this "optimization" is simply throttling. EFF posted a video on a service and accessed it under different conditions and methods using a T-Mobile LTE connection--using a Binge-On account. To be specific, analysts performed four tests:

(1) Streaming a video embedded in a webpage using HTML5 (“Streaming in Browser”)
(2) Downloading a video file to the phone’s SD card (“Direct Download”)
(3) Downloading a video file to the phone’s SD card but wit filename and the HTTP response headers changed to indicate it was not a video file (“Direct Download, Non-Video File Extension”)
(4) Downloading a large non-video file for comparison (“Direct Non-Video Download”)

Data shouldn't be complicated to understand but it's clear that T-Mobile throttles video streaming when Binge On is activated. This is by default because even if the device can download files at higher speeds, the result still showed an obvious throttling under various conditions like being downloaded directly, via tethering, for later viewing, etc.

Using another test, EFF also discovered that the carrier still throttle downloads even if filename and HTTP headers already say it's not a video file. This means the default action is to "throttle". AT&T already confirmed that they can "detect video-specific protocols/patterns" when asked how they are able identify video streams.

EFF also discovered that this optimization by T-Mobile only means video throttling to 1.5Mbps and not always 480p. If video is more than 480p, the effect is just uneven streaming or stuttering. Once again, T-Mobile just confirmed that they "don’t do any actual optimization of video streams other than reducing the bandwidth allocated to them".

Too many observations but bottomline is-- this "optimization" that T-Mobile is doing is just throttling and that it actually applies to all videos under various circumstances.

EFF was kind enough to contact T-Mobile for clarification. The latter then confirmed that they only reduce the bandwidth and don't do actual optimization of video streams. This is contrary to T-Mobile's initial response that they are just downgrading or mobile optiizing the videos--NOT data throttling. EFF noted that there's no downgrading either because based on the results, streaming of videos are capped at a standard of 1.5Mbps for all videos. The same things happen even if a device or plan is capable of higher speeds.

The EFF suggested that T-Mobile work on this issue before FCC makes a move. FCC is then encouraged to check on this and step in before it's too late. T-Mobile must be held accountable for its behavior. Regulations are there to be imposed and followed.

We'll be keeping track of this issue so stay tuned.

VIA: EFF


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  • Sherman D. Oaks

    Why must we go through this song and dance anyways??
    You know in the end all the carriers are going to offer unlimited data, this is all playing out exactly as the calling and texting did.
    First consumers were allotted so many calls and so many texts per month, with people, including myself, getting outrageous phone bills of $800 or more, then fast forward to today where practically every carrier could care less how many calls or texts a subscriber makes.
    So here we go again, first we get one gig of data for $50 per month, then its 4 for $50, and so on.
    In the end it’ll be just like the calls and the texts, so why does the FCC allow this fleecing in the first place?
    Ridiculous!