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Music Freedom... For Some

T-Mobile “Music Freedom” Is Actually an Internet Fast-Lane

Here at Radio Survivor we’ve discussed how an internet fast lane might negatively affect internet radio, especially mobile internet radio. But we weren’t expecting it to actually happen so quickly.

What I’m talking about is T-Mobile’s announcement on Wednesday that the company will allow customers to stream music to their smartphones without it impacting their data plans. That’s part of its bid to be the “Un-Carrier,” that treats its customers better than the likes of AT&T and Verizon.

At first blush this sounds great, doesn’t it? So what’s the catch?

The catch is that the free data is only for major streaming services like Pandora, Spotify, iTunes Radio, iHeartRadio, Slacker, Rhapsody and Samsung’s Milk Music. The problem is what’s not included.

Not included are college and community stations, thousands of independent internet stations, and independent music and audio services like Bandcamp and Soundcloud. Even some bigger music services like Rdio, Beats and Google Play are not yet part of the plan.

This means that platforms like Pandora and iHeartRadio have a big advantage in reaching T-Mobile customers compared to a WFMU or plug.dj. As the Future of Music Coalition points out, it also means that musicians who aren’t on Spotify or Pandora are also at a disadvantage. For all intents and purposes, T-Mobile customers will pay a tax if they want to listen to music or stations that aren’t part of the so-called “Music Freedom” plan.

Benign Discrimination Is Still Discrimination

Now, I don’t think it is T-Mobile’s intent to exclude music services, streaming stations and musical artists. In part, there are simple practical issues behind the inclusion and exclusion. It’s actually not easy for T-Mobile to know for sure that a customer’s data stream is music or radio, except by seeing where the data is coming from. In order to give a free ride to all streaming music or radio would require the company to have a very good index of all the services out there. But by first going with the most popular services they solve a big chunk of that problem.

Further demonstrating a likely benign intent, T-Mobile is letting customers vote on which services are added to the free data plan next. However, it’s not a write-in vote, and only bigger services like Rdio and Soundcloud are included on the current ballot. That leaves out a boatload of smaller services and stations that aren’t as well known.

Still, no matter how well-intentioned, benign discrimination is discrimination.

Complicating the picture a little more is that T-Mobile also announced its own streaming music service called unRadio, the product of a partnership with Rhapsody. Not unexpectedly, that service is part of “Music Freedom,” too.

unRadio is not an on-demand service like full Rhapsody. Instead it’s a Pandora-style radio stream based on custom stations, but with unlimited skips, as well as no commercials. UnRadio is free for T-Mobile customers with Simple Choice data plans and subscribers to Rhapsody’s full on-demand service. It’s $4.99 a month for all other T-Mobile customers.

unRadio does promise to offer live streaming radio from “thousands of terrestrial stations.” It names KCRW in Los Angeles, KEXP in Seattle, and Chicago’s WXRT as few of them. Now, we don’t know what the other stations are, nor how they are selected. For what it’s worth KCRW and KEXP are both on iHeartRadio, which is part of the “Music Freedom” plan. WXRT is from Clear Channel competitor CBS Radio, which offers its own Radio.com service.

In highlighting a couple of well-respected non-commercial stations we again see an attempt to be inclusive. Yet that only begs the question as to what stations will not be included.

Even if T-Mobile includes the stream of every terrestrial station in the US, that still leaves out an awful lot of radio that’s on the internet. International and internet-only stations don’t fit that bill, for example.

Molehill or Snowball?

I know this can seem like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. T-Mobile is the #4 carrier in the US, so this affects far fewer people than if it were AT&T or Verizon. Plus, in many ways the “Music Freedom” plan is a net gain for customers, who get to listen to a whole lot of music without using up their data plans or incurring overage charges.

Plainly speaking, the problem still is that some internet music services and stations get a toll-free fast-lane on T-Mobile’s mobile internet, while others do not.

Rather than molehill, it’s really a snowball that threatens to avalanche. Imagine if AT&T and Verizon were to try to match T-Mobile at this game. That would put small and independent services at an even greater disadvantage with regard to reaching most of the country’s mobile listeners.

At the moment, this is all legal. It would also be legit under the FCC’s current Open Internet proposals, too. That’s why it’s important for those who care about a level playing field for all internet services–including music and radio–should send comments to the FCC.

If T-Mobile really wants to give its customers a gift, maybe it should just remove data caps altogether. That would be truly “UnCarrier” thing to do.


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15 Responses to T-Mobile “Music Freedom” Is Actually an Internet Fast-Lane

  1. Hal June 20, 2014 at 8:00 am #

    Republic Wireless has a plan that is $25 per month, with unlimited talk, text, AND DATA. The only limitation is that they offer just two phones… Motorola Moto G and Moto X. Worth looking into. I’ve had Republic for about a year and a half.

  2. Ed June 20, 2014 at 8:25 am #

    I see your point about the little companies getting hurt. But honestly, if the one of the smaller companies had a better service, I would still use the smaller service. I used to pay for Spotify, I really like the interface they have. But I left because they insisted on a facebook. That’s why I left Spotify.

    I’d be concerned, when Verizon and Cox start charging premiums to get to certain content.

  3. John June 20, 2014 at 8:29 am #

    Consumers also have the choice to pay for unlimited data. Taking the first steps of goodwill a company can provide as such an affront to internet freedom is daft.

    Throttling QoS on competing products would be problematic. That is fastlaning. This is data block identification.

  4. Ordeith June 20, 2014 at 9:37 am #

    All T-Mobile had to do was change their throttled speed when you hit the cap. Move it from the current 60kbps to 260kbs and music streams would still function – from any source.

    And they would still be treating the data somewhat fairly.

  5. Gunther June 20, 2014 at 10:29 am #

    Wrong. It is not a “fast lane”. If you take it for what would define a “fast lane” it would mean T-Mobile is actually increasing the speed of the connection to Pandora, etc. This is not happening. They are only allowing unrestricted use to these services. It is a net gain for customers, compared to the previous scheme where ALL data impacted the plan. Now customers have the huge amount of data that these radio services used available for the unthrottled data cap.

    How bloggers find a way to criticize this plan is unreal. If I understand correctly you are advocating for the FCC to interfere with this? So T-Mobile customers would then need to be impacted with all of their data use? Sounds like the opposite of progress.

    • Rivers June 20, 2014 at 10:57 am #

      Preach brother! This guy clearly is spitting out jargon that he has been hearing on mainstream media without knowing that it all ever means. What happened to doing research or citations when writing to have a so-called opinion about something. Bloggers like these fools are killing informative journalism. Seriously, if you when to college or even high school at least write like you went to one.

      • Ordeith June 20, 2014 at 4:05 pm #

        Free Press Policy Director Matt Wood agreed, telling Ars that “even if all music apps are on equal footing, they are advantaged against other kinds of apps. That kind of favoritism skews innovation because it favors certain content, business models and technologies over others.”

        T-Mobile’s move to exempt certain kinds of services is a tacit admission that its own data limits can be bad for consumers. Why should browsing the Web or watching video, but not listening to music, count against a user’s data plan?

        “The more practical present-day concern is about the data caps themselves,” Wood said. “What’s the justification for a cap if music can be so easily uncapped? Certainly not congestion. Any time a carrier says hey, pay us a little more or use a certain service and the data is free, then you have to think the cap is arbitrary in the first place.”

    • Rusty Hodge June 20, 2014 at 12:39 pm #

      Gunther- Just curious how you’d feel if the deal only included a streaming service you didn’t use, and excluded your favorite services. I haven’t heard anyone saying that there should be no exceptions to data caps for streaming, but rather that they should open this up to all streaming services not just a few large ones with deep pockets.

      Rivers- I agree that the “Fast Lane” is a misleading term here, it’s more like a “Toll Free” lane for the major services. (Also you should know the Comcast/Netflix thing wasn’t just Comcast/Netflix; it was all content on Cogent’s backbone, where Netflix was serving content from. Comcast and Cogent’s saturated peering points weren’t just affecting Netflix, it was affecting everyone serving content from Cogent’s backbone.

      • Rivers June 20, 2014 at 1:09 pm #

        Yea, I’m aware of that. Didn’t mention it cause, I was too lazy to type all that and it was just a quick overview of it. Like we also didn’t mention that Comcast for example throttled Netflix’s service till the deal was signed. There’s a lot of information we probably missed. That why people need to be need to be aware of these things.

  6. Rivers June 20, 2014 at 10:52 am #

    It’s inappropriate and misleading to call the music freedom a fast lane. No where have I read (at least not yet) that those music providers are paying T-Mobile to be in this so-called fast lane (which it shouldn’t be called that). T-Mobile offers Unlimited Data, so what is the worry if some other services are left out of the Music Freedom service. You still get to use them as much as you want, worry free. As a person who uses Google Music every single day since it’s announcement, hitting the data cap has never been a issue. You also fail to see that T-Mobile never said that they will give these music providers priority in data being sent to your phone, which was the big deal with Comcast and other big ISP were trying to do. You also fail to see the implications of making it so all the music services get added to the service at one. Think about it, why can’t this be a beta test to see how T-Mobile’s network would take the load of data coming in and out. If you allow all the services to come online at once T-Mobile’s networks would become increasingly congested all at once and might even crash which could in turn cause them to lose customers. I fee like T-Mobile will eventually add all music services to this Music Freedom but they have to take baby steps first. They first have to fix their coverage issues and upgrade their internal infrastructure to take on any load of data. But hey what do I know about networks, it’s not like I work for one of the largest Cloud providers with millions of daily users or ever worked for a company with a multi-tenant environment inside data-centers across the US. Oh wait I do/have. I just think it’s not right to call this a fast-lane cause it’s clearly not when compared to what Comcast did to Netflix. This is just a small capacity party with a few guest, but hey the party can always grow bigger than it was meant get.

    • Ordeith June 20, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

      Even so, T-Mobile is “choosing winners and losers online,” argued Michael Weinberg, VP of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge. In an e-mail to Ars, he wrote:

      At its most basic, net neutrality is about preventing ISPs from choosing winners and losers online. This is exactly what T-Mobile is doing with this announcement. Having created artificial scarcity by throttling customers after they use a certain amount data, T-Mobile is now opening up special lanes for a handful of music services that presumably are either already popular or have someone on staff with an existing relationship with T-Mobile. This immediately creates two classes of music services—those that can get you throttled on T-Mobile and those that cannot. These classes create a barrier to any new entrants. If they can get enough customers to vote for them, they can get into the unlimited lane, but now they have to attract those customers as a service that will get them throttled. Furthermore, there are plenty of niche services that are important to their users but may never meet critical mass to get into the T-Mobile unlimited lane. Even a quick survey of people in the office this morning identified music apps from local radio stations like WFMU and KCRW and bigger subscription services like those from Google and Rdio that don’t make the cut. WFMU and KCRW might be popular by community radio standards, but they are unlikely to be a position to get into the T-Mobile unlimited club.

      More generally, this plan highlights again how data caps are currently being used by ISPs to manipulate their customers’ experience online. Whether it is Comcast exempting its own video services from a data cap or T-Mobile blessing a handful of music services, these caps allow ISPs to push people toward some services over others. That fundamentally changes the nature of competition online.

      • Rivers June 20, 2014 at 2:55 pm #

        Dude, what point as this might be a beta test first and then extend to all music services do you not understand? Don’t throw that fancy jargon at me from a guy from “consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge”. Have you ever rolled out a major release to millions at once? Yes they picked a few and not all, it’s impossible to do so. Come at me with an article or quote with real technical experience in networking, data centers, knowledge of the 3 tier system, network protocols, and device hardware that says it was totally possible for T-Mobile to let all music providers get this treatment, without impacting T-Mobile’s network performance. Then you may have a valid point/opinion/argument. Till then, you’re making a moot point.

        • Ordeith June 20, 2014 at 4:01 pm #

          Why didn’t they just increase the capped speed to 260kbps and call it good? I know your love for them is blinding you to the implications of what they are doing, but do try to be a little more objective….

  7. Matthew Lasar June 21, 2014 at 9:20 am #

    We can argue over how to headline this deal to our heart’s content. We can tell consumers to pay even more money to the wireless companies to avoid data limits. Most uselessly of all, we can speculate as to what T-Mobile is going to do next and/or fantasize that this arrangement might be a beta test. But the bottom line is that, unless we suddenly live in a dimension where money doesn’t matter, this is going to morph into a priority access system: pay the ISPs money and your application gets on a track where the service doesn’t suck. The bottom line will be that you don’t have to be the most innovative or creative mobile radio/music app any more. You just have to fork over the cash and consumers will use your app because they don’t have to worry about passing their data limit. Thus we are on a fast lane to an Internet where a new mobile music service shows up and Jane Doe smart phone user says ‘that’s nice, I’ll take a look at it, but I’m sticking with the apps that keep me within my budget.’ The end result is that, no matter what T-Mobile says and no matter what kind of application polls it runs, T-Mobile is picking your music streamers for you, and it’s picking them on the basis of who pays or whatever other criteria some suit over at ISP Corporate comes up with (which will also boil down to who pays). And if you are comfortable with that, you get the next comment, except as a co-owner of this blog, I’m charging you a data fee if you exceed more than 200 words.

  8. ThisDude December 10, 2014 at 12:54 pm #

    Just wnated to point out that more services have been added to Music Freedom.

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