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Summary:

The recent court ruling invalidating much of the FCC’s authority over broadband service providers was bad news for lots of different businesses on the web, but it’s most chilling to companies that serve up independent video.

Anyone involved in the online video industry has to be chilled to the bone by the recent court ruling invalidating much of the FCC’s authority over broadband service providers.

The court essentially told the FCC that it couldn’t force Comcast to pass all bits equally through its cable modems, in essence allowing the ISP to once again shape packets and slow certain types of traffic with impunity. This is bad news for lots of different businesses on the web, but it’s most chilling to companies like YouTube, Metacafe, Netflix and mine, Revision3, which serve up independent video.

Why? Because Comcast could potentially slow down the delivery of our streaming video. Why would it do that? To protect its multichannel cable-TV oligopoly, and its owned and operated cable networks — including The Golf Channel, Style and G4 –- from web-based competition.

Comcast, along with Time Warner, AT&T, Verizon, Charter and other conglomerates have a lot at stake here. New multichannel services from Move Networks, Sezmi and others promise to use the broadband network to replace traditional cable services. Anecdotal evidence shows that many have already ditched cable for a combination of Netflix streaming, Amazon Video on Demand, iTunes and Internet originals, via devices from Roku, Boxee, Syabas and the new crop of web-connected TVs and Blu-ray players.

Streaming video is not like a simple file transfer, because all the bits have to arrive in order, and on time, in order to ensure a clean and rebuffer-free viewing experience. ISP routers already analyze every packet for source, destination and routing path, and it’s relatively easy to slow down, or shape, packets based on type or source. And if you can’t get a good streaming video signal because your ISP has slowed those services to a crawl, you’ll be forced right back to traditional multichannel video services for your television.

So the courts have handed cable TV operators, along with Verizon and AT&T, a huge tool to keep their customers from fleeing to Internet alternatives. As you would expect, though, Comcast and others are claiming that they “remain committed to the FCC’s existing open Internet principles.” They’re also asking the government to let them self-regulate.

But they can’t be trusted. Comcast lied about its packet-shaping in the past, and I don’t expect it to suddenly change its stripes now. Luckily the FCC isn’t standing still, but is considering a number of different alternatives to ensuring net neutrality, including getting Congress to expand its authority over broadband.

I think the best alternative, however, would be to reclassify ISPs to a Title II common carrier service from a Title I. This would put broadband into the same category as POTS and other telecommunications services. Self-regulation would be bad, and I’m leery about leaving the decision up to Congress in light of how long they can take to make a decision.

Free and clear access is important for consumers, for competition and for creativity. Because without it, we’ll be stuck in a “57 channels and nothing on” world, dictated and enforced by the cable monsters.

Image courtesy of Flickr user rstrawser

Jim Louderback is CEO of Revision3. He was previously vice president of Ziff Davis Media and Editor-in-Chief of PC Magazine and PCMag.com.

  1. I agree, democracy just doesn’t work. Disband the congress and let the bureaucracy do its thing.

    We can’t let the rule of law stand in the way of lolcats any longer.

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  2. Extremely well put; I would like to add one comment: look what happened to the banking industry when we deregulated them. We have to have control over greed and Comcast is greedy.

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  3. I agree. There are extremely strong incentives for service providers to start working closely with their lawyers to craft packet shaping policies that only incidentally disrupt competing products, without blatantly violating antitrust statutes.

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  4. Stark Ravin Friday, April 9, 2010

    Amen, Jim. Amen.

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  5. [...] today that choice is threatened. I just wrote an opinion piece for GigaOm detailing Why We Cannot Let Neutrality Fail. I encourage you to read it. But get involved too. Write your representatives and tell them you [...]

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  6. How much does it take to set up an independent ISP that operates worldwide and is strictly committed to net neutrality? It looks impossible at first sight but as you can rent almost any service it boils down to making the right contracts with the right people. I see so many people out there campaigning for net neutrality it shouldn’t even be hard to get this enterprise funded.

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    1. Hey! You might’ve just given away a revolutionary idea :)
      But more seriously, I think you have a point. A pure-NN-ISP doesn’t probably cost too much. In fact looking at the ‘free’ nature of most new age Internet businesses, once can conceive an ISP that gives the bandwidth away for free and makes money by taking a cut of the advertising revenue pie.

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  7. Brett Glass Friday, April 9, 2010

    Anyone in the bureaucracy industry must be chilled to the bone by the idea that the courts might enforce the rule of law. NOT!

    Jim Louderback, who may have been a flashy personality on cable TV but obviously has never been either a lawyer or an engineer, is apparently ignorant of the fact is that the FCC’s authority was not “invalidated” — it never had such authority in the first place, and was trying to usurp powers that neither we, the people nor our Congress ever gave it.

    He is also apparently ignorant of the fact that if ISPs do NOT manage their networks, many applications — including his company’s streaming video — won’t work correctly. Would Mr. Louderback like it if kids downloading illegal copies of movies via BitTorrent disrupted his service? I doubt it. Yet, that’s exactly what would happen if Comcast and other ISPs did not manage their networks.

    And if ISPs were classified under Title II of the Telecommunications Act — talk about pounding a square peg into a round hole! — he wouldn’t like the results either. The cost of broadband would skyrocket. Many parts of the Net suddenly wouldn’t connect to others until and unless “interconnection” agreements were negotiated, cutting him off from many of his customers. Broadband competition would vanish, leaving him to deal with one or two behemoths. And as for reaching those customers who aren’t currently served by broadband? Fuhgeddaboudit. There’d be no incentive to invest in further deployment.

    Perhaps Mr. Louderback should go back to giving trivial tech tips on cable TV.

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  8. Net neutrality is vital for innovation in the digital era and if people are too blind to see this then I pity them the future they are helping to create.

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  9. Yeah, give the federal government even more power. They are already doing enough damage to the economy, why not let them ruin something else too.

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