Tech + Lifestyle

games, gear, and googleplexes (joke)

Net Neutrality: Reversal

Now you see it...

Now you see it...

Now you dont.

Now you don't.

Traditionally, net neutrality has been a sticky topic that boils down to internet service providers declaring themselves information demigods. On several occasions, they’ve fought for the right to dole out portions of their bandwidth based on who can pay for it, which would essentially reduce access to anyone who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay what they demand.

Recently, it has taken a different turn. ESPN has begun demanding that various ISPs pay for their customers to have the privilege of accessing their ESPN360 site. Anyone that is unlucky enough to have an ISP that hasn’t paid ESPN’s access fee, won’t be able to view their content. At my permanent address in San Antonio, I use Time Warner Cable for my internet access, and guess what? I don’t have access. ESPN has effectively reduced my status to that of a second-class netizen, at least on their site.

Other companies have made or offered similar arrangements. Disney owns ESPN, and has made a similar deal with Verizon for their Disney Connection service, aimed at kids. The NFL offers live streaming on Thursday and Saturday night games for those ISPs that have paid for access to their NFL Network Game Extra service.

Don’t misinterpret this; I’ve got no problem with premium content that requires payment for access. MMO games regularly charge an average of $15 monthly for access to AAA titles. Certain, ah, “publications” charge for access to their more exclusive content. Here’s the difference: they’re charging the consumer directly. The choice of whether or not to pay for World of Warcraft is left up to you, not your internet service provider. Anyone can choose to pay for WoW; only those with the right ISPs can access ESPN360. Furthermore, you can’t necessarily switch service providers if you want to get ESPN360. There are typically only a couple different ISPs to choose from in each area – for example, in San Antonio I’ve got Time Warner Cable, AT&T U-verse, and a plethora of dial-up and niche providers. If I wanted to get ESPN360 and none of my options offer it, I’m SOL.

The concept of limiting 3rd-party premium services to those with the right internet service provider is a dangerous one for consumers. If it catches on, the future internet may well end up being more like your cable television service than the wide-open internet that you can currently access. Doesn’t sound likely to you? Consider this: many internet service providers are excited by the opportunity to distinguish themselves from the competition. The more of them that sign on for these, the more 3rd-party premium services will seek similar deals. This particular variation of net neutrality has the potential to spiral out of control faster than most people may realize.

I hate to get all PBS-y on you, but this trend is disconcerting. The best way to stop it is to create a massive consumer backlash on the web. Link to this story, repost it on your own blog or website, tell any of your friends that you think might care, that sort of thing. Don’t get me wrong, I know there are more important things out there – eradicating malaria is something I take pretty seriously – but such a loss of consumer freedom isn’t a good course of action in a society that is so internet-dependent.


February 9, 2009 - Posted by | News, Tech | , , , , , , , ,


  1. Hi — I’m the director of digital communications at Time Warner Cable. And I don’t entirely disagree with you, either. What you describe here sounds a lot like they are applying the cable tv business model to the website. Cable networks (like us) pay fees to TV networks (like ESPN) for the rights to broadcast their content. That’s why you see channels going dark sometimes — it’s a dispute between the cable company and the TV network. ESPN, Comedy Central, whatever else are available pretty much nationwide, on Comcast, Cox, TWC or others largely because they are so popular. This sounds like we haven’t struck a deal with ESPN360 yet.

    I’m not saying this is a good or bad idea, as I am a) not familiar with this particular issue and b) well aware which side my bread is buttered on. But your post opens up an interesting question: does it work to apply existing cable business models to online content?

    Jeff Simmermon
    Director, Digital Communications
    Time Warner Cable

    Comment by Jeff Simmermon | February 10, 2009 | Reply

    • Jeff,

      Thanks for the input. As far as the topic of applying cable business models to online content goes, I’m inclined to think that it wouldn’t work well for three reasons:

      1. Only making a premium service available to the customers of those ISPs that pay for access to it will automatically limit the potential revenue stream of said service. Theoretically, ESPN or a similar content provider could charge ISPs enough to make up for any lost sales, but I doubt that most ISPs either have a large enough profit margin to make that possible, or have customers willing to accept a price increase in return for premium content (unless provided in a fashion similar to VOD or PPV).
      2. Applying old, outmoded business models to new forms of entertainment or information technology rarely works well; if anything, new business models end up being applied to older forms of tech. For example, advertising on television started similar to what was used on radio with a single company sponsoring a program, then moved to multiple advertisements per show. This was then applied to radio broadcasts. Another example is the application of the cable subscription model to satellite radio, albeit commercial-free.
      3. Consumer backlash would likely be tremendous if popular sites or services become unavailable to them. One of the more absurd examples in recent memory was Microsoft’s attempt to charge PC users for an account on their Games For Windows Life service – online multiplayer gaming had been available for roughly a decade, and for free. The service is barely alive today.

      Of course, there’s no guarantee that some sort of viable compromise couldn’t be reached, but I’m not going to hold my breath. Regardless, I’m glad you stopped by. Most large companies fail to get a good read on what their customers think of things like this.

      Comment by Brian | February 10, 2009 | Reply

  2. 1. ESPN 360 Frustrates me more than I can put into words. I am willing to speak out against it in any format. The fans have absolutely no input. I want access!
    2. Much respect to this webpage/blog. Im on the web a ton as well.

    Comment by jmattex | March 6, 2009 | Reply

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