EFF: T-Mobile One plan may break net neutrality rules

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The Electronic Frontier Foundation believes that T-Mobile's new One plan, which offers unlimited data, calls, and texts, may fall afoul of net neutrality rules due to the restrictions that it imposes on how customers can consume data.

T-Mobile One, which was announced yesterday, is claimed to do away with data "buckets", which CEO John Legere calls "the single biggest pain point in wireless", but limits the quality of video streams for customers who do not wish to pay an additional monthly fee to enjoy high-definition content.

T-Mobile One brings unlimited video streaming in standard-definition, which is "typically DVD quality (480p)" according to T-Mobile. To enable higher-quality streams, T-Mobile wants customers to shell out an additional $25 per month, on top of the $70 that it asks for T-Mobile One.

"From what we've read thus far it seems like T-Mobile's new plan to charge its customers extra to not throttle video runs directly afoul of the principle of net neutrality", says EFF senior staff technologist Jeremy Gillula. That is because the FCC's Open Internet Order "explicitly [says] that ISPs can't throttle traffic based on its type, or charge customers more in order to avoid discriminatory throttling".

The aforementioned rule is called No Throttling and is found under the Strong Rules That Protect Consumers from Past and Future Tactics that Threaten the Open Internet section in the Open Internet Order. It reads as follows:

A person engaged in the provision of broadband Internet access service, insofar as such person is so engaged, shall not impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of Internet content, application, or service, or use of a non-harmful device, subject to reasonable network management.

Limiting customers to lower-quality video streaming and charging a fee to do away with said restrictions could qualify as such, though the FCC has not yet chimed in to reveal its official position. T-Mobile previously introduced unlimited standard-definition (480p) video (known as Binge On) as a default option for certain customers, but allowed them to unlock high-definition streams without forcing them to pay a fee in return.

This is not the only limitation that T-Mobile One has. The plan offers unlimited tethering, but only at 2G speeds. To do away with it (though not altogether), customers can pay an additional $15 to receive 5GB of "high-speed" tethering.

In my coverage of T-Mobile One (which you can read by clicking the link in the first paragraph) I failed to mention that it also "prioritizes", in T-Mobile's own words, the data traffic of customers who consume more than 26GB of data per month. T-Mobile says that they represent around three percent of its user base.

Considering that it had 67.4 million customers last quarter, that means this restriction would affect around two million of them at most, which is a fairly large number. "As a result, they may notice relatively slower speeds but only at specific times and places that may experience high network demand or congestion", says T-Mobile.

T-Mobile has so far seemed to stay on the right side of net neutrality rules from the FCC's point of view, and it will be interesting to see if that will still be the case once its T-Mobile One plan goes into effect starting early next month.

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