In his post Is ESPN committing reverse Net Neutrality, ZDNet colleague George Ou looks at the case I've referred to in which ESPN360-delivered streaming video of each World Cup match is available only to subscribers of certain broadband providers- but not to those subscribers who access the Internet through Comcast, Cablevision, AT&T, and Time Warner Cable.
"Could this be a case of reverse Net neutrality service blocking," George writes. "If this is the case then Russell might be right about a neutrality violation, but he may have gotten the role of the perpetrator and victim backwards."
He then makes the case that because a page that some subscribers see in which they are notified their Internet access provider is not offering this content, but are being encouraged to lobby their ISP to do so, seems a case of ESPN playing hardball with these services by setting up a business model in which these providers are, in effect, being asked to bear part of the infrastructure cost.
A cost, George believes, that Comcast and others have - by choosing not to make the World Cup stream available- doesn't want to recoup the cost by violating Net neutrality precepts by either charging extra for this premium content or not recoup the cost by eating the expenses.
Let's see what George says here:
So what does all of this mean? Is it possible that ESPN is making certain demands of the ISPs to be able to "carry" ESPN360 as if they were cable companies? Does this mean that ESPN is demanding preferential treatment and free connectivity to the ISPs that aren't ESPN360 carriers? Does this mean ESPN360 is demanding free caching services from the ISPs since that is the only scalable way to effectively deliver high-quality video on demand? And most importantly, is ESPN demanding a fee per subscriber from the ISP? If any of this is true, those of us who don't watch ESPN will be forced in to subsidizing this sort of activity.
As to this argument, it seems to me that ESPN has stars in their eyes by making content available online that today's Internet infrastructure is not fully equipped to deliver. Give it another name: greed. We have all this great capacity for compelling programming, but we want to ask ISPs to help us bear the cost so that it makes sense for us to offer this stuff online as well as on cable.
Only one thing, ESPN.
This isn't your Internet, to forcibly stuff more content through than the Internet can't handle. This is the people's Internet, not a cartel. If the Internet of 2006 is not capable of natively showing this content without the artificial boost that caching servers provide, then don't offer it.
There should be some regulatory or statutory proscription against Internet content companies offering content that is too fast for the Internet as a whole, and then playing favorites with those providers who aid and abet this violation of Net neutrality by forming an extortionist cartel with content providers that enable some Internet users with deeper pockets to see this content, and others not.
Nothing is wrong with using caching servers, but the principle ought to be that you don't force extra bandwidth through the Internet of today. If you must, let it pixellate, let it buffer - and then, within equitable parameters to the consumer, let the Internet access providers raise general - not per-event- Internet access rates in order to fund the capital expenditures necessary to beef up their speeds.
Next, George says:
Now if ESPN can demand money from ISPs for the privilege of being able to "carry" ESPN360, then why couldn't Google video demand similar privileges and payment from ISPs since it would be suicidal for any ISP to not be able to "carry" Google or Google Video? Google certainly is in a much better position to bully any ISP than the other way around. Technically speaking, it would be very easy for a content provider to cut off any IP range they want and effectively block all ISPs that won't share their subscription revenues.
The Net neutrality advocates worry so much about the content transporters that they have never considered the possibility of "evil" content producers. While I don't know the exact business model behind this ESPN360 deal, it certainly looks like ESPN is blocking entire blocks of IP addresses that correspond to non-paying ISPs. If this is true, doesn't this turn the entire Net neutrality debate on its head since we may need to reverse our focus towards the abusive content companies?
Well, I have been giving this a lot of thought. I wouldn't say "reverse our focus toward the abusive content companies." I'd say expand our focus to include these practices such as we are seeing from ESPN360.
Expand it statutorily, by not allowing content companies to discriminate their Internet rich media distribution by compelling prospective carrier distributors to play their way. If the content companies want to offset the cost of caching, let them charge their advertisers a premium to have their ads appear on these streams, and then apply a portion of that extra ad income to paying the Akamai bill.
Don't force the carriers- and by extension, the public- to pay for this.