Cutting the Video Cord

For decades Congress has gradually deregulated communications and media. This poses a significant threat to the FCC’s jurisdiction because it is the primary regulator of communications and media. The current FCC, exhibiting alarming mission creep, has started importing its legacy regulations to the online world, like Title II common carrier regulations for Internet providers. The FCC’s recent proposal to “open up” TV set top boxes is consistent with the FCC’s reinvention as the US Internet regulator, and now the White House has supported that push.

There are a lot of issues with the set top box proposal but I’ll highlight a few. I really don’t even like referring to it as “the set top box proposal” because the proposal is really aimed at the future of TV–video viewing via apps and connected devices. STBs are a sideshow and mostly just provide the FCC a statutory hook to regulate TV apps. Even that “hook” is dubious–the FCC arbitrarily classifies apps and software as “navigation devices” but concludes that actual TV devices like Chromecast, Roku, smartphones, and tablets aren’t navigation devices. And, despite what activists say, this isn’t about “cable” either but all TV distributors (“MVPDs”) like satellite and telephone companies and Google Fiber, most of whom are small TV players. Continue reading →

With great fanfare, FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler is calling for sweeping changes to the way cable TV set-top boxes work.

In an essay published Jan. 27 by Re/Code, Wheeler began by citing the high prices consumers pay for set-top box rentals, and bemoans the fact that alternatives are not easily available. Yet for all the talk and tweets about pricing and consumer lock-in, Wheeler did not propose an inquiry into set-top box profit margins, nor whether the supply chain is unduly controlled by the cable companies. Neither did Wheeler propose an investigation into the complaints consumers have made about cable companies’ hassles around CableCards, which under FCC mandate cable companies must provide to customers who buy their own set-top boxes.

In fact, he dropped the pricing issue halfway through and began discussing access to streaming content:

To receive streaming Internet video, it is necessary to have a smart TV, or to watch it on a tablet or laptop computer that, similarly, do not have access to the channels and content that pay-TV subscribers pay for. The result is multiple devices and controllers, constrained program choice and higher costs.

This statement seems intentionally misleading. Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire sell boxes that connect to TVs and allow a huge amount of streaming content to play. True, the devices are still independent of the set-top cable box but there is no evidence that this lack of integration is a competitive barrier.

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People are excited about online TV getting big in 2016. Alon Maor of Qwilt predicts in Multichannel News that this will be “the year of the skinny bundle.” Wired echoes that sentiment. The Wall Street Journal’s Geoffrey A. Fowler said, “it’s no longer the technology that holds back cable cutting–it’s the lawyers.”

Well, I’m here to say, lawyers can’t take all the blame. In my experience, it’s the technology, too. Some of the problem is that most discussion about the future of online TV and cable cutting fails to distinguish streaming video-on-demand (SVOD) and streaming linear TV (“linear” means continuous pre-programmed and live “channels”, often with commercials, much like traditional cable). Continue reading →

For tech policy progressives, 2015 was a great year. After a decade of campaigning, network neutrality advocates finally got the Federal Communications Commission to codify regulations that require Internet service providers to treat all traffic the same as it crosses the network and is delivered to customers.

Yet the rapid way broadband business models, always tenuous to begin with, are being overhauled, may throw some damp linens on their party. More powerful smart phones, the huge uptick in Internet streaming and improved WiFi technology are just three factors driving this shift.

As regulatory mechanisms lag market trends in general, they can’t help but be upended along with the industry they aim to govern. Looking ahead to the coming year, the consequences of 2015’s regulatory activism will create some difficult situations for the FCC.

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At the same time FilmOn, an Aereo look-alike, is seeking a compulsory license to broadcast TV content, free market advocates in Congress and officials at the Copyright Office are trying to remove this compulsory license. A compulsory license to copyrighted content gives parties like FilmOn the use of copyrighted material at a regulated rate without the consent of the copyright holder. There may be sensible objections to repealing the TV compulsory license, but transaction costs–the ostensible inability to acquire the numerous permissions to retransmit TV content–should not be one of them. Continue reading →

Congress is considering reforming television laws and solicited comment from the public last month. On Friday, I submitted a letter encouraging the reform effort. I attached the paper Adam and I wrote last year about the current state of video regulations and the need for eliminating the complex rules for television providers.

As I say in the letter, excerpted below, pay TV (cable, satellite, and telco-provided) is quite competitive, as this chart of pay TV market share illustrates. In addition to pay TV there is broadcast, Netflix, Sling, and other providers. Consumers have many choices and the old industrial policy for mass media encourages rent-seeking and prevents markets from evolving.

Pay TV Market Share

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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 →