T-Mobile’s CEO and president John Legere certainly has a reputation for being brash, for effusive cursing during public appearances and for speaking his mind. But Legere might not have realized how quickly and passionately his public comments might come back to bite him when he literally cursed out the non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recently after the group criticized T-Mobile’s Binge On video streaming services as a form of throttling.
In an online report published Jan. 4, the EFF took T-Mobile’s Binge On offering to task, testing it to see if the company was being accurate about its claims that the service “optimizes” video streaming for users while also using less mobile data. The EFF report called the practice throttling, while T-Mobile and Legere call it optimization that results in less data consumption and good quality video playback. The EFF said it is concerned that such throttling is a violation of net neutrality rules, which is why it raised the issue in the first place.
Legere adamantly disagreed with the EFF’s throttling remarks, and he quickly fired back on Twitter, using a powerful expletive and asking how in the world the EFF had any right to question Binge On and its technical features.
Almost immediately, Legere’s Twitter post was criticized by a large number of other Twitter users, who began voicing their support for the EFF in the now public dust-up.
From there the controversy escalated and boiled over, placing Legere and EFF in the technology news headlines for several days until Legere finally backed up a few steps and issued an open letter on Jan. 11, apologizing for his harsh remarks about the EFF.
“Wow. What a week it has been out there about Binge On!” he wrote in the post. “Many of you have been speaking out on the topic from a number of perspectives and I have been listening closely. I debated with myself about letting this topic drop completely so everyone, consumers and our customers, could catch their breath—but the discussion has gotten so convoluted that I had to do some follow-up to help clarify a few things before we can move on.”
T-Mobile introduced Binge On to help customers stretch their data use without having to pay more money, he wrote, while at the same time his company “absolutely supports net neutrality and we believe in an open and free Internet.” By using T-Mobile’s proprietary optimization methods, the company is able to reduce the size of the video streams to provide the Binge On services to customers while not overwhelming his company’s network, wrote Legere.
“Look, by now you know that I am a vocal, animated and sometimes foul-mouthed CEO,” he wrote. “I don’t filter myself and you know that no one at T-Mobile filters me either (no, they don’t even try). That means I will sometimes incite a bit of a ‘social media riot,’ but I’m not going to apologize for that.”
What Legere said he would apologize for is how he offended the EFF and its supporters. “Just because we don’t completely agree on all aspects of Binge On doesn’t mean I don’t see how they fight for consumers,” he wrote. “We both agree that it is important to protect consumers’ rights and to give consumers value. We have that in common, so more power to them.”
Legere also wrote that he plans to sit down to talk with EFF leaders in the near future to discuss the issues around Binge On and net neutrality. “Unfortunately, my color [sic] commentary from last week is now drowning out the real value of Binge On—so hopefully this letter will help make that clear again.”
With the shouting now dying down a bit, several IT analysts told eWEEK that we will all soon find out if T-Mobile and Legere experience any lasting fallout related to his public bashing of the EFF.
“Having a corporate persona that relies on the impromptu and typically edgy nature of social media means putting stupid messages out there sometimes,” Bill Menezes, an analyst with Gartner, said in an email reply to an eWEEK inquiry. “I doubt the average T-Mobile consumer cares about a 24-hour kerfuffle or, for that matter, the long-term implications of whether T-Mobile is actually slowing all video traffic (not just BingeOn traffic) the way the EFF and others have claimed. What’s more important is whether T-Mobile’s persona loses credibility with its target audience. If the company keeps stepping in it the way it did with the attack on the EFF, that could become a concern that affects business.”
T-Mobile’s Legere Took On EFF and Got Hammered by Critics
Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT, wrote in an email that Legere’s open letter after the incident showed that he “understands that his response to the EFF’s report was inappropriately over the top.” Whether his open letter and apology makes a dent in the fervor is another story, King wrote. “Memories seem to be getting longer and longer, abetted by an Internet that never forgets.”
The actual disagreement over Binge On and its technical features may be a “You say potato, I say potahto argument over whether the data compression T-Mobile uses to facilitate its BingeOn service unaccountably degrades streaming video, which in the EFF’s view pushes the company into data throttling territory,” wrote King. “But the bigger issue is how vendors can appease their customers’ growing demand for streaming data in ways that are cost-effective and make sensible use of the companies’ network infrastructures.”
Jan Dawson, principal analyst of Jackdaw Research, wrote in an email that the controversy is an “inevitable outcome of John Legere’s caustic approach to his job.”
While Legere has been popular for openly speaking his mind, “it was bound to get him in trouble eventually,” wrote Dawson. “In this particular case, both the implementation of BingeOn and Legere’s response to criticism from the EFF were misguided. The implementation was non-transparent and in contrast to most of the things T-Mobile has done since the Un-Carrier initiative launched. And his response to a legitimate question from the EFF was overly defensive and somewhat insulting.”
Even worse, “Legere has gotten in the habit of characterizing anyone who criticizes him as a shill for the big carriers, but in this case that was false, and he didn’t sound all that contrite even when he issued his apology,” wrote Dawson.
Rob Enderle, principal analyst of Enderle Group, told eWEEK: “Sometimes watching the dialog between vendors is a lot like watching politics—the only thing you are sure of is that no one is telling the full truth.”
Legere himself “tends to fire from the hip, which is good in that he controls the message and bad because it can make him look a tad [bit] crazy,” wrote Enderle. “If he could combine fast with more measured, he’d likely have more solid hits and fewer catastrophic misses. But it seems to work far better than the more common excessively slow response using politically correct speech and makes him a ton more fun to watch.”
T-Mobile unveiled Binge On in November 2015 as part of the company’s Un-carrier X announcements. Under Binge On, any T-Mobile customer with a Simple Choice plan that includes at least 3GB of high-speed data now gets free unlimited video streaming on their devices—which won’t count against their data plans. Under Binge On, customers with qualifying data plans can stream video content from some 24 content providers to start, including HBO, Hulu, Netflix, Showtime, Sling TV, Starz, WatchESPN and more. The video streaming is provided at 480p DVD quality and is optimized to use one-third of the bandwidth that’s normally required for video, according to the company. The Binge On free streaming video feature is open to any streaming video provider that meets T-Mobile’s technical requirements and is free for video content providers to join, according to T-Mobile.