T-Mobile’s music plan has net neutrality implications

June 20, 2014
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Recently, T-Mobile unveiled their latest “uncarrier” tactic which allows T-Mobile customers to use a number of streaming music services without having that data counted against their data caps if the customer is paying at least $50 per month. After the event, T-Mobile made it a point to tell reporters that none of the streaming services were paying T-Mobile anything to have their content bypass a customers data cap.

Although that is a significant difference compared to AT&T’s Sponsered Data program, T-Mobile is still giving those music streaming services a significant advantage over those not included. Subscribers are going to use those streaming services more over any other services so that they can save on their data caps. Therefore, this brings to light a legitimate net neutrality complaint.

T-Mobile argues that 85% of all music streaming is from these companies anyway and that they could very well add more services in the near future. On T-Mobile’s web-site, there is a poll which allows customers to vote on which service is to be added next to the music program. In fact, the FAQ on T-Mobile’s website notes that anyone, whether a subscriber or music service, can email T-Mobile and request a streaming service be added to the poll.

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So, if that is the case, why not just allow all audio data to not count against someone’s data cap?

Unfortuately, ExtremeTech notes that this may not be feasible:

In order for something like that to work, T-Mobile’s system needs to understand all audio formats from the perspective of some sort of deep packet inspection and be able to decrypt any encrypted audio streams, should a music streaming service use encryption to protect the music from being ripped on the fly. While it may be possible to do the former, no one really wants anybody to do the latter. Arbitrarily decrypting media streams to read the encapsulated data is usually not a good idea, as the music service would not be very happy about it and could potentially block T-Mobile customers from accessing its service in retaliation. Using URI based whitelisting is much safer and less legally thorny.

While T-Mobile may in fact add all music services on the internet in the near future, the precedent will be set for this type of action by other carriers who won’t be as favorable as T-Mobile.

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Michael Weinberg, a vice present at Public Knowledge, spoke to eWeek about the net neutrality implications of the T-Mobile announcement:

“It is certainly a violation of net neutrality. The premise of the net neutrality concept is to make sure “your ISP or your carrier isn’t acting as a gatekeeper. As a T-Mobile subscriber, it would suddenly really matter to you what T-Mobile is moving out of this newly un-throttled lane.”

“It calls into question their data cap generally,” said Weinberg. “When they were talking about [throttling] a year ago they were saying that it was about congestion concerns … but now they’re zero-rating some apps. If you can handle the extra music data, it suggests you don’t have the congestion cap issue you suggested in the first place.”

For years, AT&T has been trying to start their Sponsored Data program which gives more power outright to those with the deepest pockets over smaller content companies and start-ups.

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Under this model, giants such as ESPN, Facebook, Google and Twitter get to pay to have their services and content higher on peoples devices while others are virtually non-existent. In effect AT&T (and anyone else using this model) is using their market power to select winners and losers in the market, all the while consumers are the ones having the costs passed onto them.

 

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