T-Mobile Music Freedom Violates Net Neutrality, but There's a Fix

Free streaming music is sure to please customers, but the offer turns T-Mobile into a gatekeeper. The answer? Do away with throttling.

T-Mobile Music Freedom

T-Mobile's Un-carrier 6.0 strategy is to offer subscribers unlimited streaming music. While this a win for consumers in premise, it raises questions about the practice of treating different types of data differently—a violation of the net neutrality tenet.

At its Seattle event June 18, T-Mobile announced that Simple Choice customers can immediately begin streaming all the music they want from "all the most popular streaming services." This means Pandora, Rhapsody, iHeartRadio, iTunes Radio, Slacker and Spotify, and eventually also Samsung's Milk Music and the Beatport music app that SFX will soon release.

T-Mobile will also make it possible for consumers to vote for additional music apps to be added to the list, though those included, said T-Mobile CEO John Legere, account for 85 percent of streaming music traffic.

"Every single note ... will come free, not against your bucket. Even when you exhaust your high-speed data bucket, you will still stream music free at high speed," Legere explained.

When the question of net neutrality was brought up at the event, Legere said there is no commercial relationship between T-Mobile and the eight music services—they're not paying T-Mobile to give their users a perk, as AT&T has proposed with its controversial Sponsored Data offer.

Jan Dawson, principal analyst with Jackdaw Research, reminded eWEEK that Legere's response "was one of genuine surprise—he didn't see how this was an issue at all."

"If you take a strict view [of net neutrality] … then everything that treats traffic differently violates net neutrality. However, if you focus mostly on blocking, degrading and prioritizing traffic, then this doesn't have anything to do with net neutrality," said Dawson. "The ultimate arbiter of whether something should or shouldn't be allowed is often consumer benefit versus consumer harm, and it's hard to see how this arrangement would harm consumers. The only parties who might possibly object are video service providers, but it's hard to see them kicking up a fuss."

Michael Weinberg, a vice present at Public Knowledge, doesn't see much gray in the matter.

"It is certainly a violation of net neutrality," Weinberg told eWEEK.

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

While T-Mobile offers unlimited data, after subscribers use a certain amount each month, T-Mobile "throttles" their speeds by moving them off of its super-fast LTE network and onto a 2G or maybe 3G network.

"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."

Or maybe that it doesn't have it anymore.

While 15 months ago, T-Mobile had no LTE network, it now covers nearly 230 million people with high-speed LTE.

"By the end of the year, we'll be at 250 million, and we're working to take that number to our full organic number of 290 million in 2015," T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray told eWEEK June 18, ahead of the carrier's introduction of a new Test Drive program.

"AT&T and Verizon are choking on today's world of data-driven mobile broadband communications. Perhaps that's why they limit data usage or charge overages. But it's not in our DNA to act like those old phone utilities," Ray wrote in a blog post the same day. "Their networks are based on a dial-tone paradigm. Ours was designed differently. We call this being data-strong."

Throughout Wednesday evening's event, Legere and CMO Mike Sievert raved about the speed and strength of T-Mobile's network. The point of Test Drive is to let consumers see for themselves that T-Mobile's network can outperform anything they're used to.

"Customers may enjoy [T-Mobile's offer], but that's because T-Mobile has created an artificial scarcity, and then lifted that scarcity as it suits them," said Weinberg.

"It would be great if they just got rid of their data cap," he added. "Then nothing would have to be exempted from it. Consumers wouldn't have to wonder about who is on the 'OK list,' if it turned out the connection they were paying for was inadequate for their data needs."

At the conclusion of its event, T-Mobile put up a video promising Un-carrier 7.0 at the end of the summer. Let's hope it's an end to throttling.

Follow Michelle Maisto on Twitter.