|By Esmeralda Swartz||
|May 6, 2014 11:00 AM EDT||
When the U.S. Appeals Court struck down the Open Internet Order's rules that prohibit Internet service providers (ISPs) from site-blocking and providing preferential service, the debate surrounding the true definition of an open and unfettered Internet reached fever pitch. Most of the large access providers in the U.S. are subsidiaries of traditional telecom carriers and cable companies. These companies fought hard for this ruling, so it is reasonable to expect that they already had their strategies in place and plans drawn up for the investments that will be needed to rebuild the Internet, or at least a part of it, according to their vision. It is about time too. Of all the technology companies that existed before the Internet, the telecom carriers and the cable companies were best-placed to take the lead in building the future. Yet in so many areas, the technical and service innovation came from new companies and organizations we had never heard of before - not from those traditional players. Phone and cable companies have never been leaders in the World Wide Web, cloud computing, social media, Voice over IP and many other areas. But now, they have changed the playing field (at least in the U.S.) to suit the game they want to play, and so, liberated from the fetters of the unfettered Internet, we have a right to expect new innovative services. With the gates opened to competitive differentiation, we're seeing interesting things, such as AT&T's $500 million joint venture with the Chernin Group to acquire, invest in and launch video-on-demand channels and streaming video services to compete with the likes of Netflix, Hulu and YouTube.
With more customers moving away from broadcast, cable or satellite TV, the opportunity to attract customers with an over-the-top (OTT) video-streaming and TV offering is significant, as is the opportunity for the right player(s) to deliver these services across multiple platforms (e.g., mobile) and distribution channels, thereby increasing revenue streams. OTT streaming services provide new players with the opportunity to deliver video content and new entertainment experiences to consumers outside traditional linear TV paths, such as cable, satellite or terrestrial. Since OTT services provide programming over the Internet and can come across the same wires as your cable TV service, the barriers to entry are greatly diminished.
It is no secret that AT&T has not been a fan of Netflix and the two are publicly quarreling over how much money the video service should pay for a direct connection to the AT&T network. It is worth noting that since the creation of the Internet, Web companies have negotiated peering and interconnection agreements where websites connect to intermediaries, which carry the traffic to ISPs, which deliver the content service to customers. Most people were not even aware of these interconnection relationships until February when Netflix agreed to pay Comcast to connect directly to its network. Though the Netflix CEO suggests that Comcast had strong-armed him into paying an "arbitrary tax," the deal ensures that Comcast customers have improved video quality for Netflix service.
Verizon has also asked Netflix to pay for a direct connection to its network, even as Verizon users (and AT&T customers, for that matter) complain of poor Netflix performance. Netflix has tried to avoid making payments, despite giving in to Comcast, and instead asked the FCC to issue net neutrality rules that "prevent ISPs from charging a toll for interconnection to services like Netflix, YouTube or Skype." Its request was rejected by the FCC when it indicated that it has no plans to expand its net neutrality rules to ensure that services like Netflix can connect to Internet providers' networks for free. In his response to Netflix, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler asserted that the government has an important role to play in overseeing how networks connect to each other, but peering and interconnection arrangements are not a net neutrality issue under review by the Open Internet proceeding.
This is a highly charged argument for both sides. Carriers always have options when faced with growth exceeding capacity: either charge higher fees to reduce traffic or let congestion run rampant for all travelers. Unfortunately both these options have a negative customer satisfaction result and are lose-lose situations for the carrier. If the service quality for a streaming video is less than desirable, customers will get grumpy and blame their ISP for a "slow" connection. Netflix argues that "Some big [ISPs] are extracting a toll because they can-they effectively control access to millions of consumers and are willing to sacrifice the interests of their own customers to press Netflix and others to pay." Netflix is clearly upset, but video streaming has turned into a mass-market service and is a capacity hog. If Netflix and other OTT players want to use an increasingly scarce resource to carry its service at the quality levels the service dictates, who pays? There are limits that will be hit and someone will have to pay to expand the network due to growth in streaming, the growth of mobile and the coming tsunami of the Internet of Things.
Although the AT&T/Chernin deal marks the first time a big U.S. ISP has decided to go over the top with a TV service, Verizon also has plans for a streaming TV service through its acquisition of Intel Media, and has created a video streaming service by partnering with Redbox. On the broadcast side, Dish Network has also brokered a deal with Disney to stream Disney-owned channels such as ESPN and ABC over the Internet to customers' smartphones, tablets, video game consoles and other devices.
As more consumers increasingly view content on their smartphones, tablets, game consoles and connected TVs, the ability of a provider to reach across multiple platforms will unlock new monetization opportunities for a multiplatform experience.
AT&T's partnership with Chernin Group will bring a video-on-demand service to market, and presumably provide more content outside traditional broadcast options. If the content is rich enough, Comcast or Verizon FiOS TV subscribers can select the offering and put a wrench in the business of content companies.
There is an opportunity to go to market with original content that drives new customer experiences across mobile devices, social platforms and new technologies, thereby disrupting existing business models. There is a lot at stake for AT&T and it must ensure that its content is worth viewing to stand out in a crowded field of OTT providers. It would appear to be off to a good start with its Chernin partnership. The Chernin Group provides its media smarts and its majority stake in Crunchyroll, an anime streaming company, while AT&T delivers the potential for extensive distribution and access to its customer base and wireless networks.
Clearly, different and varied business models will need to be supported and monetized, whether they are advertising models similar to Google's YouTube, subscription fees like Netflix, or both advertising and subscription models like Hulu. As new partnerships and business models are envisioned, these will also have to be quickly launched and monetized at a pace not seen by carriers for traditional services.
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