Europe weighs up if net neutrality is good for TV

The issue of net neutrality is impinging on television too as broadcast and internet worlds collide

In February the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to regulate ISPs in the same way it regulates telecoms businesses. The new net neutrality laws ban broadband providers from blocking or slowing down site traffic or speeding up traffic in return for a fee. Needless to say, businesses such as Verizon and AT&T are beating their chests in opposition to the measures but what if the cable companies succeeded? What would a two-tiered internet mean to the video and TV industry, which according to Sandvine’s Global Internet Phenomena Report dominated bandwidth in the second half of 2014?

The fact that Netflix is against the idea is a clear indication of the fears that an internet controlled by a few broadband providers would be akin to a protection racket – pay up and we’ll look after you. Don’t pay and well, you’ll have to just wait and see what happens. The potential pitfalls have been well documented. This infographic from SumoCoupon last year is still one of the best overviews of what the internet would be like without net neutrality.

For TV and video businesses, the issue is plain. Unless you are owned by one of the large ISPs or are prepared to fork out handsomely for bandwidth, your business will suffer.  No matter how they dress it up, the infrastructure companies and major ISPs are protecting their interests and the interests of their shareholders. Fair enough, we live in a capitalist society and it’s their prerogative - but surely not at the expense of healthy competition, freedom to innovate online and, to be frankly personal, the freedom of the media.

Internet inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee puts it more succinctly.

“Net neutrality is critical for the future of the Web and the future of human rights, innovation and progress in Europe,” he wrote in a guest blog for the European Commission website this month [February]. Throw in entertainment and you’ve got most of the world on your side.

According to Digital TV Research there will be nearly one billion TVs connected to the internet by 2020. For multi-play service providers this is a rich battleground. Imagine being able to control the content, as well as the delivery pipe and access point to that content? That’s what’s driving the large ISPs, mindful of growing bandwidth issues but also awake to the idea that there is huge scope for profiteering.

Last month the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) joined a group of Europe-based organisations and businesses in an open letter to the European Union on proposed net neutrality laws. While calling for “an open, transparent and secure Internet that acts as a key driver for innovation and economic efficiency and for fostering informed citizenship and plurality of opinions”, the letter also outlined what any European legislation should look like.

It addresses the issues that many ISPs have. ISPs should be allowed to manage traffic by offering businesses and consumers different access packages, it says, “as long as they do not degrade or impair Internet access services and are not discriminatory.”

The EU response has been welcoming, with plans now taking into consideration the concerns of ISPs to manage traffic but not at the expense of content access. Ultimately, the EU is moving towards a single ruling on net neutrality for membership states where there is a possibility of broadband providers having to share infrastructure, something which US ISPs will no doubt fear.

So what is the upshot of this?

Video-related companies – TV broadcasters and video/movie streamers including verticals in education and healthcare – need net neutrality. With the EU proposals European-based broadcasters and video start-ups will thrive, secure in the knowledge that there remains a level playing field. New entrants will become emboldened.

Interestingly, in the UK, mobile operator Vodafone announced in November last year that it will be entering the pay TV services market in 2015, putting it on a war path with companies such as BT that already span telecoms and television. Vodafone already offers TV services in Germany and Italy but this is a new step in the UK. The delivery is expected to be cloud-based via a bundled set-top box.

It’s getting to be a busy and fragmented market. Apple too is looking to launch its own OTT TV service, according to reports in the US, while the HBO Go launch will no doubt stir things up a bit especially as HBO content has been so sought after. This is the beauty of net neutrality. Businesses that have invested in creating content that audiences want having the ability to control how that content is delivered. Netflix will no doubt be looking over its shoulder but this is good competition. It should keep prices in check and ensure that these providers continue to search for and produce good and challenging content.

The alternative is that we accept a world controlled by a few service providers who feed consumers with populist content that fits data-driven decision making. Good for profits but not necessarily for people. It’s the sort of scenario you’d expect in the movie Idiocracy, where water is replaced by a sugary drink called Brawndo, crops die, TV is rubbish and people become idiots. It’s the sort of world where people are fed endless reality shows and cartoons… Hang on a minute…


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