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Bell’s Fibe Alt TV the next front in net neutrality battle

ISPs can now potentially pick online winners and losers by calling them “managed services.”

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Fibe Alt TV:

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The battle for net neutrality never ends, it just changes form. Bell’s Fibe Alt TV, launched Monday, is the latest front in that fight.

As I noted in my previous post, the company’s internet television service juts up against net neutrality in a couple of ways. After speaking with a couple of folks in the know, I’m even more convinced that regulators should take a hard look at Fibe Alt TV.

Bell’s zero-rating of the service – exempting it from home users’ data caps – is concerning given that the CRTC just recently banned the practice, but the company labelling it a “managed service” is even more problematic.

In issuing its zero-rating rules last month, the CRTC left internet providers a loophole. While exempting certain applications from usage caps on a willy-nilly basis is a no-go, they can still do so if the app in question is indeed a managed service.

Managed services are applications delivered over an internet connection that are effectively carved off from the public internet so that general traffic doesn’t interfere with them. They’re often mission-critical apps that can’t afford any interruptions, or services that people expect to be flawless.

As I mentioned yesterday, phone services from cable companies including Rogers and Shaw are good examples.

These services are typically equal in quality to those delivered over copper wires by the likes of Bell and Telus because they’re kept separate from the public internet. Other third-party internet calling services that run over the public internet, such as Skype… not so much.

Looking forward for another good example, the connections between self-driving cars and traffic lights will certainly have to be managed services, since the safety of passengers and drivers will depend on uninterrupted communications between them.

Those two examples deliver us the questions of what needs to be a managed service, and for how long?

Looking at cable phone services, they probably needed to be managed when they were originally introduced in the mid-2000s, when high-speed internet speeds topped out in the single-megabits-per-second.

If cable companies were to provide any sort of competitive alternative to phone providers at the time, they had to be able to deliver a service that people already expected to be flawless. Carving it off made a lot of sense.

The case for continuing to exempt cable phone service as managed today is not as strong. Not only are speeds and internet connections dramatically better, people also have a myriad of ways to communicate.

Skype, Facetime, Facebook, Google Hangouts and many other services offer text, voice and video communications, and they work pretty well despite the occasional hiccup incurred from running over the public internet. None of them are managed services.

Given that, it’s not overly clear as to why cable phone service should continue to get special treatment. It’s not like copper phone providers have no other competition.

So… video. There’s no technical reason why Bell’s Fibe Alt TV needs to be a managed service.

There are plenty of precedents for online video that isn’t managed, with Netflix and YouTube being the best, obvious examples.

Netflix and Google do plenty of data management on their respective ends, including the provisioning of localized caches to deliver the best possible experience to users. But in the end, they still run over what is considered the public internet.

The same goes for most live video providers, which includes YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Twitch, but also MLB, the NFL and a host of others.

Most pertinent in the case of Fibe Alt TV, there’s also Rogers’ Sportsnet Now, which effectively replicates a TV channel online, but with one key difference: it’s also not a managed service. Rogers delivers it to all comers over the public internet without any pretense of it being special.

The key question, then, is if all those companies – especially Rogers – can deliver live and on-demand video without it being a managed service, why can’t Bell?

One insider I spoke with suggested it’s not an internet or net neutrality issue, but rather a TV rights issue.

In a nutshell, Bell may not be able to replicate its full TV programming online without it becoming a lot more expensive because the company might have to pay NBC, ABC and other U.S. networks for the rights to stream their channels.

It’s an arguable point, but Bell may be getting around that requirement by labelling Fibe Alt TV as broadcasting that just happens to be delivered over the internet, which may explain why it’s also calling it a managed service.

If Bell went in another direction and labelled Fibe Alt TV as a true, unmanaged streaming service, it would arguably only be able to include the channels it owns, such as CTV and TSN.

Whether any of that is indeed the case or not is beside the point. The bottom line is that there are plenty of other online video services that are not managed, which puts the onus on Bell to prove the need for why Fibe Alt TV needs to be.

When it comes to the whole point of net neutrality, the question of whether a particular activity is anti-competitive also needs to be addressed. Why should Fibe Alt TV get special treatment over competing video services?

The managed services loophole is thus one the CRTC needs to carefully manage. If TV broadcasters are allowed to exploit it for no good reason, it’s reasonable to expect they’ll continue to push it and eventually try to apply the definition to other apps.

If online TV can be a managed service exempt from net neutrality, how long till Bell or another ISP launches a managed music service? Or another for home security cameras?

Just as zero-rating creates the potential for internet providers to pick and choose winners in online services, so too does the managed services designation. The CRTC needs to be diligent in what it allows to be considered as such.

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