The Net Neutrality debate has already made some strange bedfellows. Companies that are usually in fierce competition against one another now find themselves aligned against a greater threat. Netflix, Amazon, Google, and others, who ordinarily compete for eyeballs on the web, can at least agree on one thing: net neutrality is in all of their interests. Similarly, the cable and phone companies, who fight for the same pay TV subscribers, would all prefer to be able to manipulate web traffic for commercial purposes. And now it seems that a new battle line has been drawn. The TV networks, long time allies of the pay TV providers, and until recently, more or less unaffected by net neutrality, are suddenly finding themselves much more concerned with how their content is delivered via the web, as the are increasingly turning to subscription-based video-on-demand offerings of their own.
As networks unveil Netflix-like products of their own, will they find themselves on the same side of the fight as the OTT services that they’re reacting to? In a world where web-based TV is the norm, one would think that the TV networks would want their content to reach consumers unhindered. Though the concern is, as always, a continued resistance to upsetting the status quo, and with it the cozy relationship between the TV networks and cable. The cord-cutting revolution is, according to many, still in its early stages, while those cable relationships continue to be extremely lucrative. The networks can, after all, extract just about any price they want from cable companies who depend on that content.
That detail alone throws another wrinkle into an already complicated question. The TV networks have proven to have plenty of negotiating power over the cable companies every time a contract is up for renewal. If the FCC doesn’t enforce strong net neutrality rules, could the TV networks themselves force the ISPs, who conveniently also happen to be cable companies, not to meddle with traffic and maintain a neutral internet even without a legal or regulatory incentive to do so? Another question is whether that protection would extend to other OTT rivals like Netflix, or if networks’ concern would end with their own content.
While the FCC definitely has a tough task before it, deciding what exactly to do about net neutrality, they aren’t the only organization with the power to impact the future of the internet and how data is handled by ISPs. As any economist will tell you, the market is a powerful force as well. If the FCC fails to protect net neutrality, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which various parties, from large companies, industry groups, and even consumers themselves, make it unattractive for ISPs to proceed with plans to charge for “fast lanes” or other manipulate web traffic.