Cutting the Video Cord

The outrage over the FCC’s attempt to write new open Internet rules has caught many by surprise, and probably Chairman Wheeler as well. The rumored possibility of the FCC authorizing broadband “fast lanes” draws most complaints and animus. Gus Hurwitz points out that the FCC’s actions this week have nothing to do with fast lanes and Larry Downes reminds us that this week’s rules don’t authorize anything. There’s a tremendous amount of misinformation because few understand how administrative law works. Yet many net neutrality proponents fear the worst from the proposed rules because Wheeler takes the consensus position that broadband provision is a two-sided market and prioritized traffic could be pro-consumer.

Fast lanes have been permitted by the FCC for years and they can benefit consumers. Some broadband services–like video and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP)–need to be transmitted faster or with better quality than static webpages, email, and file syncs. Don’t take my word for it. The 2010 Open Internet NPRM, which led to the recently struck-down rules, stated,

As rapid innovation in Internet-related services continues, we recognize that there are and will continue to be Internet-Protocol-based offerings (including voice and subscription video services, and certain business services provided to enterprise customers), often provided over the same networks used for broadband Internet access service, that have not been classified by the Commission. We use the term “managed” or “specialized” services to describe these types of offerings. The existence of these services may provide consumer benefits, including greater competition among voice and subscription video providers, and may lead to increased deployment of broadband networks.

I have no special knowledge about what ISPs will or won’t do. I wouldn’t predict in the short term the widespread development of prioritized traffic under even minimal regulation. I think the carriers haven’t looked too closely at additional services because net neutrality regulations have precariously hung over them for a decade. But some of net neutrality proponents’ talking points (like insinuating or predicting ISPs will block political speech they disagree with) are not based in reality.

We run a serious risk of derailing research and development into broadband services if the FCC is cowed by uninformed and extreme net neutrality views. As Adam eloquently said, “Living in constant fear of hypothetical worst-case scenarios — and premising public policy upon them — means that best-case scenarios will never come about.” Many net neutrality proponents would like to smear all priority traffic as unjust and exploitative. This is unfortunate and a bit ironic because one of the most transformative communications developments, cable VoIP, is a prioritized IP service.

There are other IP services that are only economically feasible if jitter, latency, and slow speed are minimized. Prioritized traffic takes several forms, but it could enhance these services:

VoIP. This prioritized service has actually been around for several years and has completely revolutionized the phone industry. Something unthinkable for decades–facilities-based local telephone service–became commonplace in the last few years and undermined much of the careful industrial planning in the 1996 Telecom Act. If you subscribe to voice service from your cable provider, you are benefiting from fast lane treatment. Your “phone” service is carried over your broadband cable, segregated from your television and Internet streams. Smaller ISPs could conceivably make their phone service more attractive by pairing up with a Skype- or Vonage-type voice provider, and there are other possibilities that make local phone service more competitive.

Cloud-hosted virtual desktops. This is not a new idea, but it’s possible to have most or all of your computing done in a secure cloud, not on your PC, via a prioritized data stream. With a virtual desktop, your laptop or desktop PC functions mainly as a dumb portal. No more annoying software updates. Fewer security risks. IT and security departments everywhere would rejoice. Google Chromebooks are a stripped-down version of this but truly functional virtual desktops would be valued by corporations, reporters, or government agencies that don’t want sensitive data saved on a bunch of laptops in their organization that they can’t constantly monitor. Virtual desktops could also transform the device market, putting the focus on a great cloud and (priority) broadband service and less on the power and speed of the device. Unfortunately, at present, virtual desktops are not in widespread use because even small lag frustrates users.

TV. The future of TV is IP-based and the distinction between “TV” and “the Internet” is increasingly blurring, with Netflix leading the way. In a fast lane future, you could imagine ISPs launching pared-down TV bundles–say, Netflix, HBO Go, and some sports channels–over a broadband connection. Most ISPs wouldn’t do it, but an over-the-top package might interest smaller ISPs who find acquiring TV content and bundling their own cable packages time-consuming and expensive.

Gaming. Computer gamers hate jitter and latency. (My experience with a roommate who had unprintable outbursts when Diablo III or World of Warcraft lagged is not uncommon.) Game lag means you die quite frequently because of your data connection and this depresses your interest in a game. There might be gaming companies out there who would like to partner with ISPs and other network operators to ensure smooth gameplay. Priority gaming services could also lead the way to more realistic, beautiful, and graphics-intensive games.

Teleconferencing, telemedicine, teleteaching, etc. Any real-time, video-based service could reach critical mass of subscribers and become economical with priority treatment. Any lag absolutely kills consumer interest in these video-based applications. By favoring applications like telemedicine, providing remote services could become attractive to enough people for ISPS to offer stand-alone broadband products.

This is just a sampling of the possible consumer benefits of pay-for-priority IP services we possibly sacrifice in the name of strict neutrality enforcement. There are other services we can’t even conceive of yet that will never develop. Generally, net neutrality proponents don’t admit these possible benefits and are trying to poison the well against all priority deals, including many of these services.

Most troubling, net neutrality turns the regulatory process on its head. Rather than identify a market failure and then take steps to correct the failure, the FCC may prevent commercial agreements that would be unobjectionable in nearly any other industry. The FCC has many experts who are familiar with the possible benefits of broadband fast lanes, which is why the FCC has consistently blessed priority treatment in some circumstances.

Unfortunately, the orchestrated reaction in recent weeks might leave us with onerous rules, delaying or making impossible new broadband services. Hopefully, in the ensuing months, reason wins out and FCC staff are persuaded by competitive analysis and possible innovations, not t-shirt slogans.

Aereo’s antenna system is frequently characterized perjoratively as a Rube Goldberg contraption, including in the Supreme Court oral arguments. Funny enough, Preston Padden, a veteran television executive, has characterized the legal system producing over-the-air broadcast television–Aereo’s chief legal opponents–precisely the same way. It’s also ironic that Aereo is in a fight for its life over alleged copyright violations since communications law diminishes the import of copyright law and makes copyright almost incomprehensible. Larry Downes calls the legal arguments for and against Aereo a “tangled mess.” David Post at the Volokh Conspiracy likewise concluded the situation is “pretty bizarre, when you think about it” after briefly exploring how copyright law interacts with communications law.

I agree, but Post actually understates how distorted the copyright law becomes when TV programs pass through a broadcaster’s towers, as opposed to a cable company’s headend. In particular, a broadcaster, which is mostly a passive transmitter of TV programs, gains more control over the programs than the copyright owners. It’s nearly impossible to separate the communications law distortions from the copyright issues, but the Aereo issue could be solved relatively painlessly by the FCC. It’s unfortunate copyright and television law intertwine like this because a ruling adverse to Aereo could potentially–and unnecessarily–upend copyright law.

This week I’ve seen many commentators, even Supreme Court justices, mischaracterize the state of television law when discussing the Aereo case. This is a very complex area and below is my attempt to lay out some of the deeper legal issues driving trends in the television industry that gave rise to the Aereo dispute. Crucially, the law is even more complex than most people realize, which benefits industry insiders and prevents sensible reforms. Continue reading →

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. Continue reading →

Aereo LogoThere are few things more likely to get constituents to call their representative than TV programming blackouts, and the increase in broadcasting disruptions arising from licensing disputes in recent years means Congress may be forced to once again fix television and copyright laws. As Jerry Brito explains at Reason, the current standoff between CBS and Time Warner Cable is the result of bad regulations, which contribute to more frequent broadcaster blackouts. While each type of TV distributor (cable, satellite, broadcasters, telcos) is both disadvantaged and advantaged through regulation, broadcasters are particularly favored. As the US Copyright Office has said, the rule at issue in CBS-TWC is “part of a thicket of communications law requirements aimed at protecting and supporting the broadcast industry.”

But as we approach a damaging tipping point of rising programming costs and blackouts, Congress’ potential rescuer–Aereo–appears on the horizon, possibly buying more time before a major regulatory rewrite. Aereo, for the uninitiated, is a small online company that sets up tiny antennas in certain cities to capture broadcast television station signals–like CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, the CW, and Univision–and streams those signals online to paying customers, who can watch live or record the local signals captured by their own “rented” Aereo antenna. Broadcasters hate this because the service deprives them of lucrative retransmission fees and unsuccessfully sued to get Aereo to cease operations. Continue reading →

A cable TV monopoly is imminent and high prices loom, at least as far as the Associated Press is concerned.

That was the angle of a widely syndicated AP story last week reporting that in the second quarter of this year, landline phone companies lost broadband subscribers while cable companies gained market share.

Beneath the lead, Peter Svensson, AP technology reporter, wrote:

The flow of subscribers from phone companies to cable providers could lead to a de facto monopoly on broadband in many areas of the U.S., say industry watchers. That could mean a lack of choice and higher prices.

In the news business, the second graph is usually referred to as the “nut” graph. It encapsulates the significance of the story, that is, why it’s news.

It’s interesting that Svensson, with either support or input from his editors, jumped on the “de facto” monopoly angle. There could be any number of reasons why cable broadband is outpacing telco DSL, beginning with superior speed (to be fair, an aspect noted in the lead).

However, AP defaulted to the clichéd narrative that the telecom, Internet and media technology markets inevitably bend toward monopoly (see here, herehere and here for just as a sample). Moreover, that the money quote came from Susan Crawford, President Obama’s former special assistant for science, technology and innovation policy, and a vocal advocate of broad industry regulation, was all the more reason it should have been countered with some acknowledgement of the growing data on how consumer behavior is changing when it comes to TV viewing. Arguably, at least, the cable companies, far from heading toward monopoly, are sailing into competitive headwinds stirred up by video on demand services such as Netflix, Hulu and iTunes.

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I suppose there’s something to be said for the fact that two days into DirecTV’s shutdown of 17 Viacom programming channels (26 if you count the HD feeds) no congressman, senator or FCC chairman has come forth demanding that DirecTV reinstate them to protect consumers’ “right” to watch SpongeBob SquarePants.

Yes, it’s another one of those dust-ups between studios and cable/satellite companies over the cost of carrying programming. Two weeks ago, DirecTV competitor Dish Network dropped AMC, IFC and WE TV. As with AMC and Dish, Viacom wants a bigger payment—in this case 30 percent more—from DirecTV to carry its channel line-up, which includes Comedy Central, MTV and Nickelodeon. DirecTV, balked, wanting to keep its own prices down. Hence, as of yesterday, those channels are not available pending a resolution.

As I have said in the past, Washington should let both these disputes play out. For starters, despite some consumer complaints, demographics might be in DirecTV’s favor. True, Viacom has some popular channels with popular shows. But they all skew to younger age groups that are turning to their tablets and smartphones for viewing entertainment. At the same time, satellite TV service likely skews toward homeowners, a slightly older demographic. It could be that DirecTV’s research and the math shows dropping Viacom will not cost them too many subscribers.

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OK, now that the television industry has admitted it, I guess I finally can, too: Hulu, far from being the key to “cable freedom” is just another evil plot by an evil industry to control us all—with the help of mind-bending advertising, of course!

Yes, I know this commercial aired on last year‘s Super Bowl. I’m behind the times… I still remember when Alex Baldwin was thin!

By Adam Thierer & Berin Szoka

The Wall Street Journal reports (see Financial Times, too) that “CBS Corp. and Walt Disney Co. are considering participating in Apple Inc.’s plan to offer television subscriptions over the Internet, according to people familiar with the matter, as Apple prepares a potential new competitor to cable and satellite TV.”

If Apple signs up enough networks to launch a viable service—still a very big if—it could ultimately alter the economics of the television business. The service could undermine the big bundles of channels that cable, satellite and telecommunications companies, including Comcast Corp. and DirecTV Inc., have traditionally sold in packages to subscribers.

And Brian Stelter of The New York Times says of the plan:

Broadband Internet subscriptions to TV networks could potentially destabilize the bedrock of the television business, which relies on subscribers paying for dozens of bundled channels.

As we have noted have noted here in our ongoing “Cutting the Video Cord” series, it’s just another sign that the video marketplace is vibrantly competitive and experiencing unprecedented innovation. So, why is Washington regulating this marketplace like we still live in the disco era?

The New York Times itself seems to be of two minds on this: Brian seems to recognize that the rise of Internet television means that cable providers no longer have any sort of special “gatekeeper” or “bottleneck” control over the programming available to consumers, just as his colleague Nick Bilton at the Times‘ BITS blog recently declared that “Cable Freedom Is a Click Away.” And yet, as Berin recently noted, when the DC Circuit struck down the FCC’s outdated 30% cap on the number of homes a single cable provider could serve (based on “gatekeeper” concerns) back in September, the  Times editorial page bemoaned the decision and demanded further regulation of the cable industry—even as Internet TV is fundamentally changing the marketplace for video programming and rendering moot “gatekeeper” concerns far more effectively than any law could ever do.

“Right hand, meet Left hand. Howyadoinnicetameetcha!”

Three months ago, when the DC Circuit struck down the FCC’s “Cable Cap”—which prevented any one cable company from serving more than 30% of US households out of fear that he larger cable companies would use their “gatekeeper” power to restrict programming—the New York Times bemoaned the decision:

The problem with the cap is not that it is too onerous, but that it is not demanding enough.

Even with the cap — and satellite television — there is a disturbing lack of price competition. The cable companies have resisted letting customers choose, a la carte, the channels they actually watch….

[The FCC] needs to ensure that customers have an array of choices among cable providers, and that there is real competition on price and program offerings.

Perhaps the Times‘ editors should have consulted with the Lead Technology Writer of their excellent BITS blog.  Nick Bilton might have told him the truth: “Cable Freedom Is a Click Away.”  That’s the title of his excellent survey of devices and services (Hulu, Boxee, iTunes, Joost, YouTube, etc.) that allow users to get cable television programming without a cable subscription.

Nick explains that consumers can “cut the video cord” and still find much, if not all, their favorite cable programming—as well as the vast offerings of online video—without a hefty monthly subscription.  (Adam recently described how Clicker.com is essentially TV guide for the increasing cornucopia of Internet video.)  This makes the 1992 Cable Act’s requirement that the FCC impose a cable cap nothing more than the vestige of a bygone era of platform scarcity, predating not just the Internet, but also competing subscription services offered by satellite and telcos over fiber.  That’s precisely what we argued in PFF’s amicus brief to the DC Circuit a year ago, and largely why the court ultimately struck down the cap.

Bilton notes that “this isn’t as easy as just plugging a computer into a monitor, sitting back and watching a movie. There’s definitely a slight learning curve.”  But, as he describes, cutting the cord isn’t rocket science.  If getting used to using a wireless mouse is the thing that most keeps consumers “enslaved” to the cable “gatekeepers” the FCC frets so much about, what’s the big deal?  Does government really need to set aside the property and free speech rights of cable operators to run their own networks just because some people may not be as quick to dump cable as Bilton?  Is the lag time between early adopters and mainstream really such a problem that we would risk maintaining outdated systems of architectural censorship (Chris Yoo’s brilliant term) that give government control over speech in countless subtle and indirect ways? Continue reading →

ClickerAround this time last year, a relative 20 years my senior was asking me what I was writing about and I mentioned how I’d been collecting anecdotes and stats for what was becoming our “Cutting the Video Cord” series here.  That series has documented how the Internet and new digital media options are displacing traditional video distribution channels.  We’ve been exploring what that means for consumers, regulators and the media itself.

I asked this relative of mine if they spent any time watching their favorite shows, or even movies, online or through alternative means than just their cable or satellite subscription.  He said he didn’t because of the lack of an easy way to find all their favorite shows quickly.  Specifically, he lamented the lack of a good “TV Guide” for online video. I explained to him that, for most of us 40 and under, our “TV Guide” was called “a search engine”!  It’s pretty easy to just pop in any show name or topic into your preferred search engine and then click on “Video” to see what you get back.  Nonetheless, I had to concede that random searching for video wouldn’t necessarily be the way everyone would want to go about it.  And it wouldn’t necessarily organize the results in way viewers would find useful–grouping things thematically by genre or offering the sort of related programming you might be interested in seeing.

Well, good news, such a service now exists. Katherine Boehret of the Wall Street Journal brought “Clicker.com” to my attention in her column last night, a terrific new (and free) video search service: Continue reading →