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On Wednesday we reported that T-Mobile added six new streaming music services to its Music Freedom program. Music Freedom is a feature of T-Mobile’s smartphone, tablet, and hotspot mobile data plans that allows users unlimited access to mobile streaming music services without that streaming data consumption counting against their monthly mobile data cap.

On the surface, this looks a lot like carrier/content provider deals we’ve seen before. Sprint leveraged its low-cost Virgin Wireless brand to give users unlimited access to a choice of either Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest for $5 each a month. Somewhat similar to T-Mobile’s Music Freedom, where users who choose the plan can engage with their selected service as much as they like with no data cap.

Perhaps more similar is AT&T’s Sponsored Data program, which allows users to “Browse, Stream and Enjoy” audio, video, and other rich media (paid for by sponsors) without penalty to their data caps. Like T-Mobile’s Music Freedom, AT&T Sponsored Data allows data-conscious users to indulge on content that they would normally eschew due to time and bandwidth-cap considerations.

Picking winners and losers

Features and plans like these certainly allow lower income users to make affordable choices based on the services that they like most. The problem is that while the particular services chosen to participate are usually at the top of their game, they’re not the only ones that sit in their respective spaces. By promoting data plans with ties to specific content, it seems that Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile are giving incentives to users to choose certain online services over others.

In the Sprint model, choosing Facebook would mean spending less time on Twitter, because Twitter costs more. T-Mobile’s Music Freedom plan, likewise, has garnered some suspicion in the streaming music space.

T-Mobile's exec team (with CEO John Legere second from the left)

Above: T-Mobile’s exec team (with CEO John Legere second from the left)

Image Credit: Devindra Hardawar / VentureBeat

Is Music Freedom Different?

With support for thirteen music streaming services, T-Mobile’s Music Freedom program’s list of providers is expansive, though not comprehensive. Music Freedom lacks support for independent streaming services such as TuneIn and 8Tracks, a profitable music streaming service that focuses on the independent music titles that attract late adolescents. Though not a household name in streaming music (yet), 8tracks is making exceptional inroads in exactly the demographic that T-Mobile’s Simple Choice 1GB plan is targeting.

VentureBeat spoke to 8tracks CEO David Porter about T-Mobile’s Music Freedom. He said, “I heard about this a while back, and I was recently annoyed when I learned that a new friend hadn’t been using 8tracks because it did count against the bandwidth limit.”

It’s not just the little guys. Music Freedom is also missing support for some large corporate players like Amazon Music and Google Play Music. In fact, a social poll of T-Mobile’s customers showed that nearly a million subscribers wanted Music Freedom’s unfettered access to apply to Google Play Music.

With the specter of wireless carriers picking streaming music winners and losers hanging over our heads, I reached out to T-Mobile to ask what it took for streaming services to join Music Freedom. I was surprised that unlike AT&T’s Sponsored Data access, Music Freedom isn’t a pay for play service.

“There’s no monetary relationship between us… [and the streaming services] with respect to participation in Music Freedom,” said Clint Patterson, a senior director at T-Mobile. “We don’t ask them to change bandwidth levels, we simply whitelist the music content from them. There’s an open [i.e., rolling] admission process for music services to join Music Freedom.”

This is not a Netflix/Comcast situation. No one’s paying anyone for enhanced access to the network. Patterson said that T-Mobile “would like to include all music streaming providers over time.” He also mentioned that the results of the poll that showed massive interest in Google Play Music led the carrier to begin work adding the service to Music Freedom. They expect it to launch by the end of 2014.

These populist moves underscore T-mobile’s focus on user satisfaction — an important factor in their recent growth. Under the helm of John Legere, T-Mobile, the self-proclaimed Uncarrier, is on an aggressive multilateral campaign to add new subscribers. Not only does its attempt at main-streaming the no-contract paradigm attract young people and those who lack steady incomes, it’s accelerated upgrade cycles and promotions like Music Freedom are intended to pull frustrated subscribers from the subscriber rolls of GSM rival AT&T and the other wireless big fish, Verizon. T-mobile’s already on pace to outgrow Sprint in the near term.

For the Bellevue, Washington-based wireless provider, Music Freedom is about being able to offer more for less. In an era where mobile carriers are consistently working to phase out the so-called “unlimited” monthly data plans that drew millions of users into the modern smartphone age in the first place, T-mobile’s Simple Choice plan with Music Freedom seems to make sense.

Since 2007, mobile data plans have shrunk: from virtually unlimited, to 5 gigabytes a month, to about 2 gigabytes per month per user. Despite the limits carriers are placing on their user’s monthly bandwidth, monthly plan prices continue to creep up, alongside the fact that there are more and more data-hungry mobile services launching every day.

T-mobile’s flagship Simple Choice plans begin at $50/month with a mere 1GB of 4G/LTE data usage before users find themselves accessing the Internet on the much slower 2G/EDGE. For otherwise casual smartphone users that listen to music throughout the day, this inexpensive, otherwise no-frills mobile data plan, despite its obvious limitations, appears remarkably viable.

But is Music Freedom necessary?

T-Mobile’s willingness to clarify its position and highlight the Simple Choice 1GB data plan led us to research whether or not Music Freedom was an important differentiator for those consumers searching for smartphone access in the $50/month range.

The fact is that other carriers give users access to 4G (HSPA+ up to 21mbps) data plans with 2 or even 3GB data caps for $50/month or less. That’s three times the data that T-mobile is delivering in the entry-level Simple Choice plan for the same price. Within the big four carriers, AT&T’s 10GB family plan, for example, is $160/month for four devices, leaving each user to cough up $40/month for access to 2.5GB (more or less) each. Unlike T-Mobile’s 10GB Simple Choice share plan, AT&T’s 10GB doesn’t provision 2.5GB for each user. So if one person doesn’t stream while another is a more data-hungry user, these plans are superior to Simplified 1GB on their face.

On the other hand, when you consider that listening to Pandora or Spotify for as little as an hour per day during a month (while in the car or during a workout) can drive up 4G data usage to 1.8 and 2.1GB respectively, Music Freedom’s unlimited access value begins to surface again.

Is Music Freedom a threat to network neutrality?

Despite it’s best intentions, Music Freedom changes the way people look at the Internet. An Internet chopped up into different channels can be a cause for concern.  While users may not have to worry about which music service they’re listening to on their budget-minded wireless plans, they’re incentivized nonetheless to focus their experience on music rather than explore the other various bits of rich media that the Internet has to offer.

Curiosity is limited when one has to think about managing megabytes. Curiosity may diminish completely if one can be carefree about one piece of the Internet and feel the stress of management about the rest. Put another way, a channeled Internet provides a veiled disincentive for both the distribution and demand for diverse types of content — most alarmingly those types of content that we haven’t invented yet.

We used to call the Internet the Information Superhighway. It was one place where all of us could gain access to everything. When we split the Internet into these audio, video, social, and other channels, the Internet ceases to be about access to information. And we risk locking people into habits that get in the way of that spirit of open access and discovery.

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