For a company that just announced a year-on-year increase of 8 million new customers, “cool uncle T-Mobile” is starting to look a little less perfect. After lots of controversy and confusion, T-Mobile has finally confirmed that they are throttling bandwidth for video streaming services for users of their Binge On program.
T-Mobile’s new Binge On program–which all users have automatically been opted into–sounds great on paper. Subscribers can now stream as much video as they want from select video streaming services, including Netflix, Hulu, and HBO GO, without it counting against their data plan. It doesn’t support all streaming services–YouTube is noticeably absent, for example–but you can view a list of supported services here.
Update: Since the original writing of this post, T-Mobile has added YouTube as a Binge On partner, and allowed some services to opt out of its throttling. But this trick may still be useful for other services that haven’t opted into or out of T-Mobile’s Binge On program.
The problem with this, of course, is that if you start giving away all that high-quality streaming for free, you’re going to have to make sacrifices to compensate. For T-Mobile, that means forcing those videos to play in standard definition 480p instead of higher quality, but more data-hungry HD. How do they achieve this? By slowing down your connection when downloading (or streaming) video. When sites like Netflix detect a slow connection, they’ll switch the video to SD instead of HD. (You can still connect to your local Wi-Fi and stream as much HD video as your heart desires without any restrictions, however.)
Here’s where things get really crazy: T-Mobile is slowing down users’ connection on video streaming sites even if they aren’t part of the Binge On program. So that means if you’re signed up for Binge On–it will lower your connection speed on those sites anyway.
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And if a video service doesn’t offer SD, it will just take forever to buffer the HD video, since your connection is throttled.
Low quality videos aside, there’s also some debate over whether this violates net neutrality principles, since it punishes video streaming services by making them seem slower than other sites.
Luckily for us, the engineers at T-Mobile were smart enough to give users the option to turn Binge On off–as long as you don’t care about those HD videos eating up your data plan.
To accomplish this, log in to your T-Mobile account online. Once your profile comes up, click in the top-right corner where you see the “Profile” button.
After the page loads, find the section marked “Media Settings”.
From here, the first menu item you’ll see is the toggle for the Binge On program. Flip it to the “Off” position.
It can take awhile to actually change, so you may need to refresh the page over the next two hours or so to verify it went through. You can test if the full connection has been restored by opening up a YouTube clip that you know has an HD option while using 4G or LTE. If it streams in high quality with few or no interruptions, the process was successful.
(Update: In response to the backlash over BingeOn, T-Mobile has released a dial-only code that will either enable or disable the feature in an instant. Users can use their smartphone to dial #BOF# (#263#) to turn the feature off, and #BON# (#266#) to turn it on.)
Note: you’ll have to do this individually for every user on your plan that wants to opt out, so don’t forget to click into each one of your family member’s profiles to get the setting disabled completely, if they want it.
Whether or not giving us the “option” to disable Binge On after automatically enabling it for millions of customers really counts as staying “net neutral”, we can’t say. But it’s better than nothing, and for the time being should be enough to prevent a riot from forming at T-Mobile’s headquarters. You just have to decide which is more important: higher quality videos, or lower data usage.