January 04, 2016

T-Mobile's Tampering with Video Is Bad for Everyone, Not Just Google

It's been clear for years that major early battles over net neutrality would likely be in the video delivery realm.

With the rise and expansion of Internet video streaming services like YouTube, Netflix, and many others, major percentages of overall Internet bandwidth are now used to delivery video streams to users, especially in their local evening hours.

Concerns about the neutrality of ISPs (whether land or mobile based) have long been simmering on at least two fronts.

One of these is bandwidth caps and limits -- how much Internet data a user may "consume" before they're blocked, throttled, or charged extra by their landline ISP or mobile carrier. Since video, especially higher quality video like HD (or now also 4K) can use a lot of data, this is a big deal to consumers -- and to video stream providers.

It gets even more complicated when dominant ISPs establish their own video services whose use does not count against users' bandwidth caps, even though such services compete directly with those of outside firms where usage does count against those same bandwidth caps. The related "fox guarding the hen house" analogies are straightforward to understand.

Current controversies regarding T-Mobile's new "Binge On" service can be more complicated to explain, because they combine key aspects of bandwidth cap issues like those mentioned above, with another aspect entirely -- T-Mobile is apparently actually tampering with outside services' video streams and slowing them down.

Google's YouTube has been particular vocal in expressing concerns about this, and with excellent reasons.

Because what T-Mobile is doing threatens fundamental precepts of net neutrality that are crucial to avoid Internet consumers from being -- frankly -- shafted, whether they realize it at the time or not.

We could very quickly get bogged down in a fascinating (well, fascinating to me) deeply technical discussion of video streaming systems, codecs, transcoding, formats, content delivery networks, and other aspects of the instrumentalities that bring Internet video to your computer, TV, tablet, or phone.

But for now I'll just put it this way ...

Getting quality video to your screen with smooth motion, and without freezes, the squarish mosaics of pixelization, smearing, breakups, and the other multitude of ways that Internet-based video can be disrupted, is immensely complex.

There are many endlessly changing variables involved, including performance characteristics of the user's device, speed of their Internet connection, buffering on their connection, characteristics of the connections between the user and the video streaming service -- a long and complicated list.

To make all this work, streaming services depend on knowing that the data they send to users is the data those users will receive, at the expected speeds and without slowing or modifications by third parties.

Once such a third party arbitrarily tampers with the video streaming experience, all bets on performance and quality for viewers are off the table.

The video service no longer knows what data will reach the user and in what form and speed, nor can it any longer necessarily depend on the accuracy of the metrics that video player software send back so that the streams can be adjusted in real time to maximize performance for the viewer.

Small wonder that Google is upset about what T-Mobile is doing. If I was running an Internet video streaming service, I'd be damned angry about it.

Obviously, I'm not in a position to negotiate a solution to the current situation regarding T-Mobile.

But from my standpoint, this kind of T-Mobile saga is a very disappointing and worrisome (though not unexpected) development -- especially for someone who has long been concerned about exactly these kinds of scenarios shredding the net neutrality concepts that have been crucial to the development of the Internet and the ability of new players to compete.

Remember, if ISPs and mobile carriers feel that they can manipulatively inject themselves without penalty or proscription into the data transactions of outside services and their users, it likely won't be very long at all before we see similar large-scale tampering with non-video Internet data becoming the norm as well.

And then we'd all be the chickens at the mercy of the fox.

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so -- my opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Posted by Lauren at January 4, 2016 06:58 PM | Permalink
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