Binge On and Stream TV: Showing Why Net Neutrality Isn’t Enough

In November 2014, advocates of a free and open Internet were starting to see some hope that, in spite of its connections to the cable industry, the FCC would enact the real net neutrality rules they’d been fighting for. Tom Wheeler’s proposed mishmash of the worst elements of both Title II and the previous Section 706 justification for net neutrality rules was DOA but showed the FCC chairman’s willingness to adopt Title II if the movement for it had enough momentum, and President Obama himself had come out in favor of real net neutrality rules, lending the cause a further mark of legitimacy and making it all the more politically difficult for Wheeler to go against it. In spite of the millions of letters Americans had sent the FCC encouraging real net neutrality on a Title II basis, it was the events of that November that marked a real turning point that led to the FCC adopting Title II and enacting strong net neutrality rules early last year.

So where did we find ourselves a year after that fateful November? Well, T-Mobile has announced a new program called “Binge On”, allowing you to watch all the video you want from certain sites without counting against your data cap, which sounds great until you realize it effectively amounts to prioritizing certain sites over others, what net neutrality is supposed to prevent (after the new rules were applied to wireless providers not subject to net neutrality rules before). And Comcast has indicated that its own Stream service, targeted to the mobile devices of broadband-only customers, also won’t count against its data cap in markets where it’s trialing the caps.

T-Mobile says the program is open to anyone without qualifications or any money needing to change hands, but it’s easy to be skeptical that it’ll stay that way, especially since it forces all video to be streamed in SD quality, something YouTube, not part of the program, has complained about, with the only difference, so far as I can tell from T-Mobile’s statements, being that Binge On partners have to compress the video themselves (so it’s not really without qualifications, and that’s significant). If every carrier took this tack, even if none of them charged for it, nascent streaming services would have to spend a lot of effort going through a lot of hoops to make sure they were qualified and signed up for every carrier’s program. As for Stream TV, Comcast says it doesn’t even fall under the domain of the FCC’s net neutrality rules because, though it’s an IP service, it’s delivered over the regular cable system, not through their Internet tubes. Net neutrality advocates point out that such distinctions are meaningless to the end user, meaning Stream TV can crowd out competing services that do count against caps. But it’s easy to come to the conclusion that Comcast and other such providers already offer a video service over a different part of their network that doesn’t count against caps and has been running for decades: it’s called cable television. (Indeed, AT&T’s U-Verse TV service explicitly works the exact same way.)

I told you this sort of thing might happen. Video is such a massive consumer of bandwidth that it was destined to become the new ground-zero for the net neutrality debate no matter what the FCC’s rules ended up being, and Internet providers would inevitably look for ways to take control of the video content being delivered over their networks. Regardless of whether data caps are strictly necessary to manage congestion, or even the degree of competition faced by Internet providers, the basic rules of business make it inevitable that Internet providers would attempt to meter the use of video on their networks – and if, as many predict, all video will one day be delivered over the Internet, the issue is going to become that much more pressing, especially as 4K becomes the norm. T-Mobile and Comcast are trying to portray their offerings as meeting laudable goals – T-Mobile by optimizing video for the size of the screen, Comcast by moving video consumption out of their Internet network – and while it’s telling that Tom Wheeler initially praised these sorts of schemes as “innovative” and “pro-competitive” (though he’s since asked T-Mobile and Comcast for more information about these services), unless net neutrality advocates can come up with a better solution, those phrases may prove closer to the truth than they’d like to admit.

One solution could be some sort of video delivery system open to all and immune to the manipulations of wireless or wired Internet providers, available to any device on any network, that content providers would only have to prepare for once. Similar to Comcast’s Stream TV, it would have to operate in a different band of spectrum than other Internet service. To reduce the bandwidth and spectrum demands of all carriers, live streaming video watched by multiple people at the same time would only need to be sent once, and that one signal could be picked up by any device. Oh wait: we have that already, it’s called broadcast television, and rather than help it fill that role its dominant entrants are desperately clinging to retransmission consent as their only reason to stay in the market at all, while the FCC is actively trying to destroy it with the upcoming incentive auctions that aim to “free up” spectrum that wireless providers supposedly need to provide the same video broadcast television is already delivering more efficiently than they ever could and that its more forward-thinking entrants hope to compete with. If you don’t want programs like Binge On and Stream TV to be the future of video and the Internet, you should be pushing to save broadcast from the forces trying to destroy it.

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