T-Mobile blows the doors open again, still a lot of small print and the net neutrality debate is not over

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
T-Mobile blows the doors open again, still a lot of small print and the net neutrality debate is not
This past week, T-Mobile’s outspoken CEO, John Legere, unveiled Uncarrier 12, doing so in a rather unceremonious YouTube video, instead of the extravagant venues of past announcements.

That in itself is significant. Mr. Legere loves stoking enthusiasm with a live audience. He thrives in dynamic interaction with his employees, and with the media. So why upload a video and be done with it?

The obvious

Like he noted in his introduction, Mr. Legere said, “No long build-up, no suspense, no leaks.” Perfectly reasonable, plus there is a significant cost savings too. John Legere has established himself as a social media icon, and has built a reputation for being responsive to consumers while being disruptive to an industry. With an image like that, who needs a live audience? With a few clicks of the mouse, several thousand views, re-Tweets, etc., John Legere can have just as much of an impact.

The less obvious

One area of debate that T-Mobile has stoked the flames has been the arguments around so-called “net neutrality.” I will address that a little later, but when T-Mobile introduced Binge-On, the media asked pointed and specific questions about how T-Mobile network management or content management might conflict with the Title II position taken by the FCC when it comes to the internet, and the data that is transmitted on it.

John Legere, along with wingmen CTO Neville Ray, and COO Michael Sievert, in typical outlandish fashion, took part in Team Magenta’s latest rate strategy, “T-Mobile ONE.” In their own fact sheet, T-Mobile points out that “the internet is meant to be unlimited.” However, even with a “carrier for the people,” there are more than just a couple asterisks, and there is no doubt the media and bloggers would have had an unrelenting salvo of questions to ask. A YouTube video, followed by a brief Periscope and Facebook Live stream (all of 15 minutes) creates a much easier environment to control the message.

The fine print

In broad strokes, T-Mobile ONE provides unlimited talk, text, and LTE data. Sounds good, right? It is. There is nothing really nefarious going on here, and as an educated consumer, the fine print does not bother me, but if you are part of that “gimmie” generation, you might be let down.

There is, in fact, a “soft cap” to that unlimited LTE data. It is 26GB. More than enough for most people. If you are part of what T-Mobile designates as the “highest 3%,” you may see occasional choke points in your bandwidth. In T-Mobile’s defense, it is not a blind throttling of data, but relatively slower speeds “only at specific times and places that may experience high, competing network demand or congestion.” In other words, there is positive network management being applied here.

That flies in the face of a direct question I asked Mr. Ray last November when Uncarrier 10 was introduced in Los Angeles. When another writer brought up the idea of content being paid or prioritized for Binge On users (in the context of net neutrality), Mr. Legere side-stepped a little, and I asked point blank if T-Mobile exercised any positive network control over the types of data flowing over the network to enable Binge On, music streaming, VoLTE, or any other service, to work. The answer was, “No.”

More fine print

For those consuming the “unlimited” data on T-Mobile ONE, video content is handled the way it is via Binge On, at “DVD” quality, 480p resolution. When you are on the move, and viewing content on a small device with a 5-inch screen that is not really a problem (and in my view, you get what you pay for). Those that want full HD quality or higher resolution content have to pay an additional $25 per-line, per-month.

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That is not an insignificant premium, especially when cast against the landscape of the often cited “family of four” being able to get “unlimited” for just “$40 per line.” Remember the previously included (on some plans) mobile tethering? $15 per-line, per-month (for 5GB), though you can tether at 2G speeds all you want in lieu of that option. Want to pay your bill manually each month? $5 per-line, per-month. There are a few other, albeit not necessarily sinister, options, but this is not so different from the nickle-and-diming Mr. Legere likes to rail against when he talks about AT&T or Verizon.

All you can eat, but…

My issue is not the add-on fees. I am a huge advocate for open and free commerce, operating within whatever the market will bear. If T-Mobile, or any other provider had some awesome new idea, I say, let them charge whatever they want. People will pay for what they see value in, or what they can afford.

For T-Mobile ONE though, Mr. Legere and friends have dressed this up as fresh, homemade pasta. In reality, it is more like Barilla pasta from the box. T-Mobile claims an unshakable network, with coverage that rivals Verizon, as the crème de la crème, but if you want to use it, you get Cool Whip instead.

Look, T-Mobile, if your network has risen above the stink from the infant-PCS days of VoiceStream and Aerial, et al, why does it matter how the data is carried? At one point, Mr. Legere says no one else can do what they are doing, and yet T-Mobile does not seem up to doing it themselves. That is all fine and good. My piont is, it matters how carriers and ISPs manage data.

Sir Thomas More

If we are going to be honest, the idea of a utopian open and free internet, able to carry whatever data in whatever bandwidth, without hindrance or concern, is destined to fail. Even T-Mobile knows this. So, the carrier sought out, and in my opinion found, a meaningful solution, segregate how the content is delivered without censoring content, at considerable technical expense. Unlimited video that streams efficiently and is still standard-definition? Great. Want better resolution? It will cost more since a 1080p stream will consume about 3-times the bandwidth.

Social justice warriors and legal minds (real and imagined) bemoaned that not all content providers were part of Binge On at the time, thus violating principles of net neutrality. I have made the argument against net neutrality before. As technology advances, the need to prioritize types of data is only going to get stronger, the backhaul requires positive management controls.

Radio spectrum along with its associated bandwidth, not to mention physical utilities, has measurable, and clearly finite limits. Just like anything in life, not all data is created, or should be treated as, equal. Despite that, data can still be managed without so much fine print to consumers. In short, we (and our data) cannot be all in the same clean uniforms sublimely carrying on our duty for the greater good, a-la Thomas More’s utopian dream. Every attempt so far has failed, such is the fallibility of man.

Positive reception, arguments invalidated

What is interesting about the whole discussion around net neutrality is that the legal arguments pointing out conflicts of T-Mobile’s actions and the FCC’s position on net neutrality appear, on their face, technically correct. However, those that embraced Binge On weakened the net neutrality argument somewhat. Many did not care about the “lower” quality of video, or the staggered way providers were added to the service (there are over 100 providers now). The technical issues as to which protocols T-Mobile required to bring content providers on board were not relevant to the consumer. Protocols, streaming technology, and how video content might be integrated with other types of media became nuances for those that know better. The consumer got their “unlimited” data, albeit that data (standard definition) was getting favored treatment, thus not neutral.

With T-Mobile ONE, that model ostensibly remains in place, no matter what content is being streamed. If you want your HD data to have “equal” treatment to the standard definition stuff, there is a toll to be paid.

When simple is not simple

There is some marketing trickery and math that goes into how carriers, or any retailer really, create and offer the pricing for their products or services. For wireless, the word “unlimited” has become something of a weird joke. T-Mobile’s ONE is simple, but for some complexities, and it is unlimited, except for some limits.

Businesses are in business to make money, and anyone that thinks it is some type of benevolent venture for the betterment of the universe is seriously deluding themselves. Eventually, however, this simple but complex, cheap but expensive, free but not free, unlimited but not unlimited formula will not work so well.

I know it seems like I am ripping on T-Mobile, but really I am not. What I am ripping on is for T-Mobile (and all carriers for that matter) to quit dumbing down the customers. Nothing is ever so expensive when it is free or unlimited, and in this case, it arguably rubs against T-Mobile.

The carrier is bound to discover that when you provide “freebies and gimmies” targeted at a generation that has been given “freebies and gimmies” all their lives, the “freebies and gimmies” want more, ever more, technical limitations or practical arguments be damned. I think when T-Mobile hammers the prowess of their network the way they do (and hats off for enduring amazing growth), they end up having to contend with the “freebies and gimmies” along with the “internet lawyers” that suddenly became masters of network management and provisioning switchgear, wondering in obtuse fashion, "If your network is so great why have any limits at all? I'm offended and need a safe space."

Somewhere in this mix, there has to be nexus where the word “unlimited” could be used while retaining its actual meaning. Until then, remember, nothing is unlimited.

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