img: tmonews.com, screencap from John Legere video

How to blow up your PR: The John Legere Master Class

(UPDATE: On 12 January, John Legere issued a written apology.)

John Legere has, for years, been a controversial CEO in American circles. He’s adopted an extremely laid-back style that make Richard Branson look left-coast uptight. He exploits all the social media channels he can to maintain constant contact with the wireless consuming public.

He also lead his company through a shift away from the previous modus operandi in the US wireless game through the various Uncarrier programs. Contract subsidized phones were replaced with devices either purchased outright or over a 24 month period, leaving the consumer with an owned device and a lower bill. Depending on plan, data usage is either unlimited, throttled after a certain threshold, or at a straightforward, uncomplicated price per gigabyte. Lines can be added inexpensively, and without much hassle. They even managed to attack the greatest of the holy cows of wireless, international roaming, by offering international data and text gratuit for a fair number of customers.

At this point, I should disclose that I am a customer of T-Mobile, and I have used nearly all these features. Pretty useful when you’re a multinat.

And, frankly, it’s helped his company expand and gain market share against the major incumbents, AT&T and Verizon.

However, there’s a problem that any entity with a human as their main face needs to worry about. Whether we’re talking about that sandwich shop guy or the pudding pop guy or the computer dude, if your company’s face commits a grievous error in judgement, it’ll have direct consequences on how the public interacts with your company.


Throttling, Zero Rating, and Net Neutrality

When you offer unlimited anything, there’ll always be someone trying to abuse it. At the end of August, Legere announced that those who are gorging at the buffet would be kicked out.

The people affected by this were a relatively small number of people, typically individuals who ran rooted phones which operated as hotspots and transferring terabytes of data each month. Such extreme usage can degrade network performance, particularly in urban environments. Generally speaking, complaints only came from those in the camp of the bandwidth abusers.

Name redacted to protect the guilty

Of course, this doesn’t mean additional measures wouldn’t be taken. Mobile is rapidly overtaking traditional desktop/laptop access to the Internet. (You’re likely reading this via Medium’s app, or within Twitter’s branded browser, rather than their website.)

Early November, Legere announces, with his usual Twitter flood and rapid fire Q&A, “Binge On,” a new feature that would zero rate certain video apps. (Prior to this, T-Mobile announced zero rating a horde of streaming music sites and apps, including Apple Music though notably excluding Amazon.) Per T-Mobile’s Site:

With Binge On™, Simple Choice users on a qualifying plan are FREE to stream unlimited video on your favorite services like Netflix, HBO NOW, Hulu, and many more without using a drop of your data. Nothing to configure — all automatically applied to your plan.…
…When using streaming partners like HBO, Showtime and Starz through other services like Amazon, Apple TV, etc. those services will use your high-speed data on T-Mobile’s network. Video streams at DVD quality (480p+) with Binge On.
(src: t-mobile website as of 8 jan 2016)

At a glance, this looks great for those that want the content without worrying about bandwidth issues. On a mobile screen, 480p is sufficient quality, and if you watch a lot of “Jessica Jones” or “How To Get Away With Murder,” it’s great for you. (Oddly, again, I’m screwed if I want to watch “The Man In The High Castle.”)

People familiar with the reputation of what zero rating will do to a service provider were a little squicked. In December, Slate tested T-Mobile’s claims that BingeOn was about video optimization in cooperation with certain providers. The end result was surprising, but not entirely unexpected.

BingeOn throttles all content that is perceived to be video content from all providers, not just from the zero rated companies. It doesn’t optimize media at all, just slows it down.

Other carriers, both wired and wireless around the world, have futzed with streaming content providers before, as well as giving zero rated content all the bandwidth over non-preferred Internet usage [PDF link].

From http://dfmonitor.eu/downloads/Webfoundation_guestblog_The_real_threat_open_internet_zerorating.pdf

EFF’s Deeplinks Blog from 4 Jan 2016 also points out that this kind of throttling by application, when it apparently has nothing to do with network management, violates the FCC’s Open Internet Order of 2014 [PDF link].

On 7 January, Legere responded in his typical style: a video which looks can-edited, but projects a sincere combination of frustration and wanting to do right by his customers. (Please note — I’m saying he projects this image.)

“There are people out there saying we’re ‘throttling’ [sic]. That’s a game of semantics, and it’s [EXPLETIVE]. That’s not what we’re doing. Really. What throttling is is slowing down data and removing customer control. Let me be clear. Binge On is neither of those things.
“…[M]obile customers often don’t want or need full, heavy, giant video data files.”

quotes from Tweeted video

If we’re talking ‘semantics,’ though, one would do well to review a commonly accepted definition of bandwidth throttling, which mentions little about the consumer:

image retrieved from Wikipedia, 8 Jan 2016

Another criticism is, in the same dialogue, he purports to divine the needs of the end user. Despite the plethora of illicit means of trading videos, there are both videos which are perfectly legal to trade due to status, such as the Prelinger Archives, and videos which the creators encourage people to download, such as those under Creative Commons licensure. Creators of content would also prefer that the network operators not interfere with transmission of their works in progress, which may include massive video files. YouTubers upload and download large videos in order to maintain their streaming media presences. News media requires raw feeds for clear end-user content. Degrading the content affects ability to use the service.


The Faux Pas

Verified users have a layer of clout when communicating with other Verified individuals that mere mortals cannot understand. Yes, it’s a filter that brings other Verified folks to the top, and can potentially allow the V club to drop that velvet rope in front of us like at gods-know how many nightclubs. Generally, though, if a verified user talks, people listen.

In this case, since this verified user was (gasp!) part of the Cabal that dared question this novel service, Mr Legere got testy.

Really testy.

At 0:17 in, Legere says:

“..[W]ho the [EXPLETIVE] are you anyway, EFF, why are you stirring up so much trouble, and who pays you?”

There are several acknowledged rules on the Internet. Rule Zero, translated into more appropriate language,of course, is don’t commit violence against a cat. Rule One ought to be don’t mess with the EFF.

The Internet’s reaction to this jaw-dropping moment of foolishness ranged from sarcastic wit..

..to angry comedy…

…to plain old call-outs…

…to folks that are dropping Magenta as last year’s color.

..to at least one Binge On partner publicly being pissed..

..and something any organization should be wary of, a tweet from the hackers in Guy Fawkes masks:


The great irony for Legere

He claimed ignorance of EFF, but without their assistance, his current business would probably not be feasible.

EFF has worked tirelessly to establish and maintain the right to unlock mobile phones, which T-Mobile’s contractless model cannot exist without. EFF has fought against the other major carriers by supporting consumers’ privacy rights in class action suits against Verizon and AT&T. EFF has advocated for increased cell coverage and not jamming or disabling phones in emergencies. They’ve made sure that T-Mobile and the apps that run on its network aren’t liable in the event a user ignores copyright.

Legere was able to move into his current position because of missteps by previous management and the intractable nature of the large incumbent carriers. Until yesterday, he was moving smoothly on the razor’s edge a public CEO dances. Today, he’s bleeding and in need of serious triage.

(edit: added slidefuse tweet)