Home » Technology » WTF is zero rating? | TechCrunch

Whenever you watch a video, post a picture, or send a message, the bytes that make up that item are analyzed and tallied by your internet provider. Once enough of them pile up, you’ve reached your data cap — annoying, right?

But what if some of those data-heavy apps and services just didn’t count towards that cap? That’s what’s called “zero rating,” and while it sounds good in theory, it’s rather problematic in practice. So how does it work, who does it, and why do people think it’s such a big deal?

Many will first have heard the term zero rating relatively recently, in the form of programs like T-Mobile’s “Binge On,” which exempts certain streaming video and music services from data counts. That way, people don’t blow through their data caps while, say, watching Netflix on the bus to work every day.

On a technical level, zero rating is a pretty simple process. The packets of data that go to and fro on the internet (wireless and wired) are all labeled with their origins and destinations; that’s how the routers and switches know where to send them, or who to notify if they didn’t get there.

All an internet provider needs to do is write a bit of code that notes when a packet is going to or coming from a certain place on the internet— for example, a range of IP addresses designating a service like YouTube. It treats those packets the same as any others and sends them on their way, only once that’s done, it doesn’t enter them into the official ledger saying how much data you’ve used. Those packets are on the house.

Sure enough, Binge On and its zero rating ilk have proven popular — though it helped that every subscriber was opted into it — and no doubt people have avoided overage fees through Binge On and its equivalents on other carriers and providers.

But when things sound too good to be true, they usually are. Think about it for a minute, and problems start to appear.

Packet problems

For example,…

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