Some recent tech news provides insight into the trajectory of broadband and television markets. These stories also indicate a poor prognosis for a net neutrality. Political and ISP opposition to new rules aside (which is substantial), even net neutrality proponents point out that “neutrality” is difficult to define and even harder to implement. Now that the line between “Internet video” and “television” delivered via Internet Protocol (IP) is increasingly blurring, net neutrality goals are suffering from mission creep.
First, there was the announcement that Netflix, like many large content companies, was entering into a paid peering agreement with Comcast, prompting a complaint from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings who argued that ISPs have too much leverage in negotiating these interconnection deals.
Second, Comcast and Apple discussed a possible partnership whereby Comcast customers would receive prioritized access to Apple’s new video service. Apple’s TV offering would be a “managed service” exempt from net neutrality obligations.
Interconnection and managed services are generally not considered net neutrality issues. They are not “loopholes.” They were expressly exempted from the FCC’s 2010 (now-defunct) rules. However, net neutrality proponents are attempting to bring interconnection and managed services to the FCC’s attention as the FCC crafts new net neutrality rules. Net neutrality proponents have an uphill battle already, and the following trends won’t help.
1. Interconnection becomes less about traffic burden and more about leverage.
The ostensible reason that content companies like Netflix (or third parties like Cogent) pay ISPs for interconnection is because video content unloads a substantial amount of traffic onto ISPs’ last-mile networks.
Someone has to pay for network upgrades to handle the traffic. Typically, the parties seem to abide by the equity principle that whoever is sending the traffic–in this case, Netflix–should bear the costs via paid peering. That way, the increased expense is incurred by Netflix who can spread costs across its subscribers. If ISPs incurred the expense of upgrades, they’d have to spread costs over its subscriber base, but many of their subscribers are not Netflix users.
That principle doesn’t seem to hold for WatchESPN, which is owned by Disney. WatchESPN is an online service that provides live streams of ESPN television programming, like ESPN2 and ESPNU, to personal computers and also includes ESPN3, an online-only livestream of non-marquee sports. If a company has leverage in other markets, like Disney does in TV programming markets, I suspect ISPs can’t or won’t charge for interconnection. These interconnection deals are non-public but Disney probably doesn’t pay ISPs for transmitting WatchESPN traffic onto ISPs’ last-mile networks. The existence of a list of ESPN’s “Participating Providers” indicates that ISPs actually have to pay ESPN for the privilege of carrying WatchESPN content.
Netflix is different from WatchESPN in significant ways (it has substantially more traffic, for one). However, it is a popular service and seems to be flexing its leverage muscle with its Open Connect program, which provided higher-quality videos to participating ISPs. It’s plausible that someday video sources like Netflix will gain leverage, especially as broadband competition increases, and ISPs will have to pay content companies for traffic, rather than the reverse. When competitive leverage is the issue, antitrust agencies, not the FCC, have the appropriate tools to police business practices.
2. The rise of managed services in video.
Managed services include services ISPs provide to customers like VoIP and video-on-demand (VOD). They are on data streams that receive priority for guaranteed quality assurance since customers won’t tolerate a jittery phone call or movie stream. Crucially, managed services are carried on the same physical broadband network but are on separate data streams that don’t interfere with a customer’s Internet service.
The Apple-Comcast deal, if it comes to fruition, would be the first major video offering provided as a managed service. (Comcast has experimented with managed services affiliated with Xbox and TiVo.) Verizon is also a potential influential player since it just bought an Intel streaming TV service. Future plans are uncertain but Verizon might launch a TV product that it could sell outside of the FiOS footprint with a bundle of cable channels, live television, and live sports.
Net neutrality proponents decry managed services as exploiting a loophole in the net neutrality rules but it’s hardly a loophole. The FCC views managed services as a social good that ISPs should invest in. The FCC’s net neutrality advisory committee last August released a report and concluded that managed services provide “considerable” benefits to consumers. The report went on to articulate principles that resemble a safe harbor for ISPs contemplating managed services. Given this consensus view, I see no reason why the FCC would threaten managed services with new rules.
3. Uncertainty about what is “the Internet” and what is “television.”
Managed services and other developments are blurring the line between the Internet and television, which makes “neutrality” on the Internet harder to define and implement. We see similar tensions in phone service. Residential voice service is already largely carried via IP. According to FCC data, 2014 will likely be the year that more people subscribe to VoIP service than plain-old-telephone service. The IP Transition reveals the legal and practical tensions when technology advances make the FCC’s regulatory silos–”phone” and “Internet”–anachronistic.
Those same technology changes and legal ambiguity are carrying over into television. TV is also increasingly carried via IP and it’s unclear where “TV” ends and “Internet video” begins. This distinction matters because television is regulated heavily while Internet video is barely regulated at all. On one end of the spectrum you have video-on-demand from a cable operator. VOD is carried over a cable operator’s broadband lines but fits under the FCC’s cable service rules. On the other end of the spectrum you have Netflix and YouTube. Netflix and YouTube are online-only video services delivered via broadband but are definitely outside of cable rules.
In the gray zone between “TV” and “Internet video” lies several services and physical networks that are not entirely in either category. These services include WatchESPN and ESPN3, which are owned by a cable network and are included in traditional television negotiations but delivered via a broadband connection.
IPTV, also, is not entirely TV nor Internet video. AT&T’s UVerse, Verizon’s FiOS, and Google Fiber’s television product are pure or hybrid IPTV networks that “look” like cable or satellite TV to consumers but are not. AT&T, Verizon, and Google voluntarily assent to many, but not all, cable regulations even though their service occupies a legally ambiguous area.
Finally, on the horizon, are managed video and gaming services and “virtual MSOs” like Apple’s or Verizon’s video products. These are probably outside of traditional cable rules–like program access rules and broadcast carriage mandates–but there is still regulatory uncertainty.
Broadband and video markets are in a unique state of flux. New business models are slowly emerging and firms are attempting to figure out each other’s leverage. However, as phone and video move out of their traditional regulatory categories and converge with broadband services, companies face substantial regulatory compliance risks. In such an environment, more than ever, the FCC should proceed cautiously and give certainty to firms. In any case, I’m optimistic that experts’ predictions will be borne out: ex ante net neutrality rules are looking increasingly rigid and inappropriate for this ever-changing market environment.