Thursday, August 16, 2007

Net neutrality - who controls what you see?

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2007

For over a year now, the argument over net neutrality has raged in the US.  Now it looks like the BBC’s iPlayer is set to ignite the same debate over here.  BT, Carphone Warehouse and Tiscali have reportedly held informal discussions about the impact of TV being carried over the internet, and the fact that the ISPs bear the cost of providing sufficient capacity.  So what is net neutrality, and why is the BBC upsetting the apple cart?

Internet Protocol (IP) governs how files are transferred around the internet.  Whether it’s an email, a picture of your auntie or an illegal copy of Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s all the same to IP, which shunts the bits and bytes that make up the file around the internet until you receive them.  IP doesn’t discriminate between these files, and treats them with equal priority.

This was fine when IP was created, and files were mostly pretty small.  But a video file can be thousands of times larger than an email, and it’s much more time-critical.

If an email is delayed by half a second, you won’t notice.  But if you’re watching video live as comes down the line (what web people call streaming), you’ll lose patience rapidly if it judders and halts all the time as the file struggles to get through to you quickly enough. 

So ISPs in the US started to push to be able to discriminate between the types of content they carry.  Prioritising video, they argue, will allow them to provide a better quality of service to all users, by delivering urgent packets faster.

ISPs provide us with our connection to the internet, buying bandwidth and dividing it up amongst their users.  Bandwidth is the biggest cost on their business, and the rise in online video is giving them a massive headache – according to Cisco, American Video sites alone are responsible for as much traffic in one month as the entire web in 2000.

But net neutrality advocates argue this is the thin end of the wedge.  Allow discrimination, they say, and you open the door for differential charging, and for the selective blocking of services that might compete with the ISP’s other business.

This has happened in the US, where one local ISP and telco blocked internet phone calls before being hauled up by the FCC.

But ISPs have gone further.  Bandwidth-hungry content like video should be made to pay for carriage, they say.  TV companies pay for carriage on cable, so why not on the internet? 

There’s no doubt the ISPs are faced with a problem.  Consumer prices for broadband have been falling consistently over the past few years, as demand for bandwidth has soared.  ISPs have to balance their investment in infrastructure against the revenue they can generate, and IPTV is throwing all their sums.

But there’s a fundamental difference between the cable TV and ISP business.  The customer proposition of cable is packages of TV channels – whilst that of ISPs is more simple; access. 

Although the early days of the internet market started with ISPs selling exclusive content to consumers, those so-called ‘walled garden’ packages (AOL, MSN etc) declined in popularity and have all but been abandoned as content and access businesses have diverged.

So consumers want to pay their ISP for access, and to be able to make their own choices about what content they see.  Just as consumers rejected the walled garden for web content, they’re likely to reject it for TV too – if you want to watch ‘the Sopranos’, you don’t want to experience a slow and jerky picture just because HBO haven’t got a carriage agreement with your ISP.

The problem is that ISP companies aren’t just worried about bandwidth.  Both BT and Tiscali have also got TV businesses - they’re in competition with all those other content owners on the internet, and they’d like to retain their position as gatekeeper, controlling access for consumers. 

So the fight around net neutrality isn’t just about ensuring that TV can be delivered effectively over the internet.  It’s about who controls what you see.