T-Mobile has announced that its Music Freedom program, which allows some customers to stream music without the requisite data counting against their monthly limit, will expand to include Rdio, Grooveshark, and a number of other services by the end of the year. It already offered a similar deal to people using Pandora, Spotify, and a few other streaming services.
This isn’t the first time a wireless carrier has offered to subsidize data usage. GoSmart said last year that its customers would be allowed to access Facebook and its Messenger service without having to pay for the wireless data used in the process. While that might have been a win for the carrier’s customers, who surely appreciated free access to the services, it was a loss for the idea that all data is created equal. (And no, there isn’t any data created “more equal” than others.)
Though the net neutrality debate is often concerned more about people having to pay to access a website or service, offering free access to specific sites also threatens the idea that companies shouldn’t be able to influence people by making rules that apply only to a few sites or services. As I explained in a blog post when GoSmart’s plan was first revealed to the public in December:
What is the difference between charging consumers extra to access one website and allowing them to access a specific service at no cost? Someone is giving consumers a reason to access one website instead of another either way. Both approaches give preferential treatment to one service over the competition. The underlying principle — that a byte from one website should cost more or less than a byte from another website — is the same.
T-Mobile is approaching the problem from another angle. Instead of allowing customers to access just one service without having to pay for the data used in the process, the carrier is letting people stream music from a number of services as part of the Music Freedom plan.
This means that T-Mobile is giving consumers a choice of what service they want to use while reaping the benefits of Music Freedom. It’s not requiring people to use one service or another — it’s making it cheaper to listen to music from any source. It gets to advertise itself as a friendly company, consumers get to listen to music without worrying about the effect it has on their data plan, and music streaming companies don’t have to pay the carrier to be a part of the program.
Other companies might learn from Music Freedom. While it isn’t perfect — subsidizing the data used by music streaming services while charging for other data is still strange — it’s better than using those subsidies to help one service gain dominance or extort money from a company in exchange for that privilege. (T-Mobile isn’t asking music streaming companies to pay to become part of the Music Freedom program.) So far as this thing goes, Music Freedom’s not that bad.