Thursday, November 12, 2015

All you need to know about T-Mobile Binge On

Have you been wondering what is T-Mobile US doing with your video on Binge On?
Here is a small guide and analysis of the service, its technology, features and limitation.

T-Mobile announced at its Uncarrier X event on November 11 the launch of its new service Binge On. The company's CEO remarked that video is the fastest growing data service with +145% compared to 2 years ago and that consumers are increasingly watching video on mobile devices, in wireless networks and cutting the cord from their cable and satellite TV providers. Binge on was created to meet these two market trends.

I have been previewing many of the features launched with Binge on in my video monetization report and my blog posts (here and here on encryption and collaboration) over the last 4 years.

Binge On allows any new or existing subscribers with a 3GB data plan or higher to stream for free videos from a number of apps and OTT properties. Let's examine what the offer entails:

  1. Subscribers with 3GB data plans and higher are automatically opted in. They can opt out at any moment and opt back in when they want. This is a simple mechanism that allows service transparency, but more importantly underpins the claim of Net Neutral service. I have pointed out for a long time that services can be managed (prioritized, throttled, barred...) as long as subscribers opt in for these. Video optimization falls squarely in that category and T-Mobile certainly heeded my advice in that area. More on this later.
  2. Services streaming free in Binge on are: Crackle, DirecTV, Encore, ESPN, Fox Sports, Fox Sports GO, Go90, HBO GO, HBO NOW, Hulu, Major League Baseball, Movieplex, NBC Sports, Netflix, Showtime, Sling Box, Sling TV, Starz, T-Mobile TV, Univision Deportes, Ustream, Vessel, Vevo, VUDU.
  3. You still have to register / subscribe to the individual services to be able to stream free on T-Mo network.
  4. Interestingly, no Google properties (YouTube) or Facebook included yet. Discussions are apparently ongoing.
  5. These OTT video services maintain their encryption, so the content and consumer interactions are safe. 
  6. There were mentions of a mysterious "T-Mobile proprietary streaming technology and video optimization" that requires video service providers to integrate with T-Mobile. This is not transcoding and relies on adaptive bit rate optimization, ranging from throttling data to transrating, to manifest manipulation (ask video providers to enable un-encrypted manifest so that it can be edited and limited to 480p definition).
  7. Yep, video is limited at 480p definition, which T-Mobile defines as DVD quality. It's going to look good on a smartphone, ok on a tablet and bad on anything bigger / tethered.
  8. I have issue with the representation "We've optimized streaming so that you can watch 3x more video" because mostly it's: 
  9. File size per hour of streamed video per definition
    1. Inaccurate (if this is unlimited, how can unlimited be 3x what you are currently watching?); 
    2. Inexact (if they are referring to the fact that a 480p file could in average be 1/3 of the size of a 1080p file, which is close enough), they are assuming wrongly that you are only watching HD 1080p video, while most of these providers rely on adaptive bit rate, therefore varying the video definition based on the networks' conditions.
    3. Wrong since most people assume watching 3X more video means spending 3X the amount of time watching video, rather than 3X the file size.
    4. Of bad faith, since T-Mobile limited video definition so that users wouldn't kill its network. Some product manager / marketing drone decided to turn this limitation into a feature...
  10. Now in the fine prints, on the rest of the video you watch that are not part of the package, expect that "Once high-speed data allotment is reached, all usage slowed to up to 2G speeds until end of bill cycle." 2G speed? for streaming video?  like watching animated GIF? That's understandable, though, there has to be an carrot (and a stick) for providers who have not joined yet, as well as some fair usage rules for subscriber breaching their data plans - but 2G speed? come on, might as well stop the stream rather than pretend that you can stream anything on 128 kbps.
  11. More difficult to justify is the mention "service might be slowed, suspended, terminated, or restricted for misuse, abnormal use, interference with our network or ability to provide quality service to other users". So basically, there is no service level agreement for minimum quality of service. Ideally, if a video service is limited to 480p (when you are paying Netflix, etc. for 1080p or even 4K, let's remember), one should expect either guaranteed level or a minimum quality floor?
  12. Another vague and spurious rule is "Customers who use an extremely high amount of data in a bill cycle will have their data usage de-prioritized compared to other customers for that bill cycle at locations and times when competing network demands occur, resulting in relatively slower speeds. " This is not only vague and subjective, it will vary over time depending on location (with a 145% growth in 2 years, an abnormal video user today will be average tomorrow). More importantly, it goes against some of the net neutrality rules
T-Mobile innovates again with a truly new approach to video services. Unlike Google's project Fi, it is a bold strategy, relying on video optimization to provide a quality ceiling, integration with OTT content providers to enable the limitation but more importantly an endorsement of the service. It is likely that the service will be popular in terms of adoption and usage, it will be interesting to see, as its user base grows how user experience will evolve over time. At least, there is now a fixed ceiling for video, which will allow for network capacity planning, removing variability. What is the most remarkable in the launch, from my perspective is the desire to innovate and to take risks by launching a new service, even if there are some limitations (video definition, providers...) and risks (net neutrality).

Want to know more about how to launch a service like Binge on? What technology, vendors, price models...? You can find more in my video monetization reports and workshop.

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