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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