T-Mobile today unveiled a new version of its "unlimited data" plan. But the fine print makes clear that the company is stretching the meaning of unlimited.
The new option, T-Mobile One, will cost just $70 a month. But there are drawbacks. For one, the plan will throttle all streaming video to 480 lines per screen -- enough to watch in standard definition, but not high-definition. People who want high-definition video will have to pay an extra $25 a month.
T-Mobile also is drastically curbing people's ability to use their phones as hotspots by throttling hotspot users to 2G speeds. People who want the ability to tether their phones will have to pay an extra $15 a month for each 5 GB of hotspot data.
In addition, T-Mobile says it may slow the speeds of people who use more than 26 GB per month.
T-Mobile boasts that the new offering is "a radically simple subscription to the mobile Internet." But whether it's good for consumers remains unclear.
While the plan may well turn out to be cheaper for some people, it also could prove more expensive for others. T-Mobile's current "unlimited" data plan costs $95 a month, but offers unlimited high-definition streaming, as well as 14 GB of hotspot data. New T-Mobile customers who want to purchase an equivalent package would have to pay around $130. (Current customers can keep their plans, at least for now.)
Still, even though some of the company's boasts of "unlimited" data may raise questions, the new plan addresses one of the major criticisms sparked by last year's controversial launch of the zero-ratings service Binge On. With Binge On, T-Mobile exempted video streams offered by around 100 providers from the data caps of consumers who paid by the byte. T-Mobile also throttled all video to 480p when Binge On was activated.
Net neutrality advocates criticized the feature on a number of fronts, including that the company's technical requirements excluded some video distributors at launch. In January, Stanford professor Barbara van Schewick said in a report that Binge On undermined net neutrality by giving people incentives to watch videos from a select group of companies. "A core principle of net neutrality is that ISPs should not pick winners and losers online by favoring some applications over others," she writes. "But that’s exactly what Binge On does," she wrote.
The new service at least appears to overcome that complaint by allowing people to stream unlimited video from any sources they like, provided they don't object to T-Mobile's throttling.