Monday, May 8, 2006 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Net Neutrality Regs Could Threaten Online High-Def Video

Last week, Slate ran an article my friend (and frequent intellectual sparring partner) Tim Wu entitled "Why You Should Care About Network Neutrality." Ironically, the best answer is not found not in Tim's essay, but instead in this Slate article today by Sean Captain entitled "Forget YouTube: Your Laptop Will Never Replace Your TV."

Captain's essay laments the second-rate quality of today's online video content & delivery systems and suggests some alternatives to improving the situation as high-definition offerings proliferate. As someone who appreciates the beauty of high-resolution (720p or 1080i) HDTV on the big screen in my house (I have a HD projector that beams a beautiful 8-foot picture on the wall), like Sean Captain, I am troubled by the quality of current Internet video offerings. I enjoy watching short Net films & videos on iFilm and other sites, but it pains me as I squint to see the tiny screen with its horrendous picture and frequent interruptions.

Consumers deserve better, and as the quality of the home theater experience continues to improve, they will demand it. Net neutrality regulation is not going to help bring it about. We need multiple business models and pricing plans to put the right incentives in place to deliver high-quality cyber-video.

Although I think I will always prefer watching a movies and shows on the big screen in my home, I might be willing to watch them on my wonderful Toshiba multi-media laptop if the feed was good enough. After all, the monitor on my laptop actually sports a higher resolution than any of the TVs in my home! So I'm itching to use it to its full potential, but right now about all I can get in terms of true high-def video online is the stuff over at Microsoft's "WMV HD Content Showcase." But it takes forever and a day to download that stuff. (Moreover, I can only take so many IMAX movies before I doze off from the boredom!)

If Net neutrality mandates are slapped on broadband service providers and they are prohibited from configuring or prioritizing Net traffic to accommodate higher-bandwidth video applications, the only other realistic alternative left is for them to charge consumers significantly higher fees for big bandwidth applications & content. Personally, I don't have any problem with that. In fact, I think a metering solution may present the best way to solve this issue. But I think there are two obvious downsides: (1) Many consumers will cry foul and vociferously protest higher fees for higher-definition online video applications; and, (2) Policy makers will hear those cries and claim the metering of the pipe is unfair or will lead to a new "digital divide." They might even suggest price regulation in response.

This is why I believe that Net neutrality regulation is worst than a solution in search of a problem. It is a problem in its own right in that it might forbid exactly the sort of marketplace experimentation and innovation we so desperately need today.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 4:51 PM | Innovation , Internet , Mass Media , Net Neutrality