Public service broadcasting in the fight over net neutrality

Public service broadcasters might run into problems as the Internet becomes a more important distribution platform for them, Tanja Storsul says.

The ongo­ing reg­u­la­to­ry and com­mer­cial con­flicts over the issue of net neu­tral­i­ty will increas­ing­ly affect pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ers. As the broad­cast­ers dis­trib­ute more of their audio­vi­su­al offer­ings online, the ques­tion of qual­i­ty of ser­vice and the future of the Inter­net as a whole becomes a cru­cial issue for broad­cast­ers, accord­ing to Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor Tan­ja Stor­sul at the Depart­ment of Media and Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oslo.

Stor­sul gave a pre­sen­ta­tion titled “Pow­er per­spec­tives on mul­ti­plat­form pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing – neu­tral vs. dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed net­works” at a sem­i­nar on pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing and the Inter­net at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bergen on April 26–27, 2007. 

The con­flicts con­nect­ed to net neu­tral­i­ty are unre­solved and the tech­nolo­gies and mar­kets are evolv­ing. Still, it is pos­si­ble to dis­cern between dif­fer­ent prob­a­ble sce­nar­ios, Stor­sul indi­cat­ed. One of them is that pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ers will have to pay inter­net net­work providers to ensure qual­i­ty of ser­vice, and will have to enter into con­tract nego­ti­a­tions with all providers.

Tra­di­tion­al­ly, an impor­tant part of the reg­u­la­tion of broad­cast­ing has been the allo­ca­tion of scarce dis­tri­b­u­tion resources – be it on ter­res­tri­al, cable or satel­lite net­works. On ter­res­tri­al and cable sys­tems, gov­ern­ments can give pri­or­i­ty to pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ers. On the Inter­net, on the oth­er hand, net­work neu­tral­i­ty has been the norm. All con­tent, sites and plat­forms are treat­ed equal­ly. In the 1990s there was lit­tle debate about this, but from 2000 this has changed. Stor­sul dis­played a video from the pres­sure group as back­ground to the cur­rent net neu­tral­i­ty disputes:

Three devel­op­ments can explain the net neu­tral­i­ty con­flicts, Stor­sul noted:

  • Con­tent providers want to get paid both from users and publishers.
  • The use of broad­band ser­vices for file down­load­ing, video view­ing etc. cre­ate capac­i­ty problems.
  • Video and live ser­vices cre­ate qual­i­ty issues that do not occur with “old­er” ser­vices such as e‑mail.

The net neu­tral­i­ty debate has def­i­nite­ly been more present and heat­ed in the US than in Europe, but recent­ly there have been inter­est­ing cas­es in Nor­way as well. Stor­sul men­tioned two: Canal Dig­i­tal restrict­ed P2P users — file shar­ers — at cer­tain hours of the day. And direct­ly rel­e­vant to broad­cast­ing: NextGen­Tel reduced trans­fer capac­i­ty of NRK mate­r­i­al for its customers. 

There are dif­fer­ent issues at stake for broad­cast­ers, Stor­sul argued. First there is the qual­i­ty of ser­vice ques­tion. It is hard for broad­cast­ers to expand into for exam­ple web TV if ser­vices aren’t sta­ble. That could lead to users hav­ing to pay (extra) to their broad­band providers to be able to enjoy pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing over the Internet.

The larg­er issue con­cerns the future struc­ture of the Inter­net. Will it be divid­ed into a fast lane and a slow lane? What should broad­cast­ers do, Stor­sul asked. If the Inter­net is dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed, pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ers might have to pay for qual­i­ty of ser­vice. More­over, they would have to nego­ti­ate and sign con­tracts with each net­work provider, which would be cost­ly. Hence, how should the Inter­net offer­ings of broad­cast­ers be financed? Users might face a sep­a­rate licence fee for web TV, Stor­sul said. A pay per ser­vice mod­el is also conceivable.

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