Opinion

Don’t turn the channel on change

Last week, more than 33 million people watched the final of the inaugural College Football Playoff on ESPN. Several million of those watched the telecast by accessing the ESPN app on their tablets and smartphones. Using that app, however, requires a cable or satellite subscription – or at least the password to your parents’ account. (Don’t worry, we’re not telling.)

That all might be about to change. A new over-the-Internet TV programming package, announced by Dish Network this month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, could dramatically alter how we watch and pay for television broadcasts. But for that to happen, Internet regulations need to keep up with the times.

Some background: Dish’s new programming package, called Sling TV, will offer consumers 12 popular channels (including ESPN, CNN and Food Network) for $20 a month. Sling is aimed mostly at young “cord-cutters” – people who have canceled cable and satellite – but if Sling also lures cable subscribers who like the math of $20 for a dozen popular channels, those providers might be forced to offer similar low-cost alternatives.

But there’s a problem ahead for Sling TV – or any like-minded ventures. Sling’s programming is to be offered over-the-Internet instead of through a cable. The broadband networks that Dish will rely on are owned mostly by large cable and telephone companies that are Dish’s and Sling’s competitors. Those Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can control and slow the traffic that operates on their networks.

That means theoretically, an ISP like Time Warner Cable could throttle down the network speeds for Sling TV, a competitor. Or it could block Sling TV altogether.

That’s not good for innovation or competition, and it’s why Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler said this month that he will propose in February reclassifying the Internet as a telecommunications service – meaning that it would be treated the same as other utilities.

Doing so is tricky for the FCC. While it’s a good idea to stop ISPs from playing favorites with access to their broadband networks, the FCC shouldn’t discourage the investment in those networks that has allowed for digital innovation to flourish. If ISPs decide that they can no longer make money by charging for access, they’ll stop expanding capacity, and that will choke the growth of new and exciting ventures like Sling.

The FCC has options. It could reclassify the broadband access offered commercially to companies like Dish and Netflix, but not the access to the Internet offered to consumers. It could allow ISPs to charge more to companies that take up a disproportionate amount of broadband capacity, but put a cap on those charges and outlaw discriminatory tactics like blocking.

Here’s what’s not an option: Doing nothing. As Sling TV shows, innovation is changing how we do many things, not just how we watch TV. Our regulations need to keep pace.

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