Binge On doesn't live up to T-Mobile's claims, researchers say

T-Mobile is once again taking flak over its Binge On offering.

Researchers at Northeastern University said recently that the zero-rated video service not only appears to violate net neutrality rules, it also sometimes delivers video of lesser quality than T-Mobile claims. And Binge On sometimes charges users for watching content from providers who are part of the program in spite of terms of the service.

"We found that Binge On behavior is not entirely consistent over time," wrote David Choffnes, assistant professor at Northeastern's College of Computer and Information Science. "We encountered a small number of cases where a Binge On-participating service's traffic was not zero-rated. These cases were transient, suggesting they are due to reasons such as buggy or overloaded infrastructure that supports Binge On."

Choffnes and his colleagues published their findings in a six-page document released late last week and reported on by DSL Reports, among others. The researchers said the Binge On video also doesn't always live up to T-Mobile's promised 480p quality, resulting in an inferior user experience.

"Binge On provides sufficient bandwidth for 480p and lower, but it increases download times, which may increase battery consumption by keeping the radio in an active state for longer," Choffnes and his colleagues wrote. "Interestingly, when Binge On is enabled, YouTube selects medium (360p) quality, lower than the 480p specified by T-Mobile.

"The lower bitrate occurs independent of the device screen size," Choffnes continued. "For example, YouTube attempts to stream HD for tablets, but T-Mobile's rate-limiting forces YouTube to adapt to lower qualities that result in visibly low resolution on large screens."

Binge On is unquestionably compelling to T-Mobile customers, and company executives have said repeatedly that users on qualifying data plans watch more than twice as much video than they did before it launched. And the carrier has said that the program's "optimization" policies – which essentially degrade the content rather than reformatting it for mobile devices – have eased congestion on the network.

But earlier this year a Stanford professor and net neutrality expert published a lengthy document claiming that Binge On "harms competition, innovation and free speech," and is likely illegal. The program constrains consumer choice by enabling users to watch video from Binge On providers but not their competitors, Barbara van Schewick wrote, and gives an unfair edge to content providers that can afford to make their video compliant with the service.

T-Mobile has consistently defended its service against claims it violates net neutrality rules, saying "Binge On is about customer choices -- not limitations."

Interestingly, Northeastern's researchers also found that Binge On "allows users to 'steal' arbitrary amounts of data from T-Mobile" by modifying content to appear as if it is Binge On-enabled which could pose a threat to the operator. "We built a proxy that does this, and confirmed that it allows free-riding," Choffnes wrote, adding that such a workaround could be continuously modified to outwit efforts by T-Mobile to block it. "We believe the above cat-and-mouse game, if played out over time, will become disproportionately complex and expensive for T-Mobile."

The researchers said they have informed T-Mobile of the vulnerability, and the carrier is "currently mitigating it via abuse monitoring."

For more:
- see this Northeastern University research paper (PDF)
- read this DSL Reports article

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