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Media Consumption in the Internet Age

Net Neutrality is obviously a complex issue. On its face, the debate is about the free transfer of data across the internet. More precisely, its about the timely transfer of large amounts of data. But what types of data transfer?

Many of the applications and sites that you use today will likely never be impacted by the existence or non-existence of net neutrality. Take a fairly standard text blog site like the Newsburglar. Probably the only way that this site will ever be impacted by a non-neutral net is if an ISP were to block it fully.

Fortunately, there is little chance of that happening. (Yes, you’ll always have access to the Newsburglar.) The Federal Communications Commission is currently engaged in a long slow deliberation regarding the legitimacy of data management by network operators. During those deliberations FCC Chairman Martin has opined that the FCC will not allow ISPs to “arbitrarily block access to particular applications or services.”

Thus, assuming for the time being that we need not worry about site blocking, then we are primarily left with data throttling. Recently, the FCC held a hearing regarding allegations that Comcast and other ISPs degrade Peer-to-Peer traffic. At that hearing, Comcast outlined six network management principles:

1. Network management (i.e. throttling) is only engaged in during heavy periods of network traffic;
2. Comcast only applies the technique in the limited geographic area where the congestion exists;
3. Comcast only manages uploads, not downloads;
4. Comcast only manages the uploads when there is not a simultaneous download occurring;
5. Comcast delays the request for an upload, it does not block it;
6. Comcast only delays the P2P upload until such time as the congestion alleviates.

On the face of it, without having actually attended the hearing or anything, these procedures do not seem to be that bad. I’m sure I’ll regret writing that some day. But as of right now that is how I feel.

I understand that this position is not mainstream among “heavy” internet users. Last night, as I was writing this I ran across a Digg entry entitled the Best Net Neutrality Video Ever. It is an entertaining video. More accurately, it is an entertaining piece of propaganda arguing that Net Neutrality is being threatened and this is a bad thing. Given Digg’s increasingly annoying demographic trends, you end up with a comment section filled with Diggenerate neanderthals. A few good points to be sure. But mostly just the usual cacophony of dunces.

That may be a little harsh. This is a complex issue however. Its so complex that, to be quite honest, I have yet to formulate an official opinion on net neutrality. Its possible that by the end of this survey I will come to some form of conclusion. More likely however, I’ll arrive at a number of general points and an even greater number of questions.

There exists a schism among internet users regarding net neutrality. While ultimately we will all be affected by the issue, there are few people that are actually impacted right now. Actually, that’s not correct. It is more accurate to say that there are few people whose traffic is being throttled. Everyone is affected. But to be honest, right now, my sympathies do not necessarily lie with the minority of users whose traffic is being degraded.

More or less, there are three types of internet users. The schism that I am talking about pits two of these groups, who by far comprise the majority, against a small but loud minority of heavy users.

The majority side of this schism is composed of novice and experienced internet users. These groups don’t necessarily have much in common. In fact, novices are unlikely to even be aware of the net neutrality debate. The remainder of the internet community is engaging in this net neutrality discussion without their knowledge.

I categorize myself as a fairly experienced internet user. I use the internet consistently throughout the day. Relative to the amount of time spent however, I find it hard to believe that I am a bandwidth hog. In absolute terms, I am probably in the upper percentiles of bandwidth usage. Relative to time spent however I find it hard to believe that I am taxing my ISPs systems too hard. I don’t use P2P. I don’t watch a lot of online video. I read text. I write text.

On the minority side of the schism are the heavy bandwidth users. Relative their absolute numbers, these users use a disproportionate amount of bandwidth. This small group of heavy bandwidth users are the customers that are affected by Comcast’s throttling of traffic today.

I bring up this schism because, as we go through this survey, I expect that it will affect my viewpoint on a variety of issues. If you are going to appreciate the arguments that I make, you need to understand my internet usage and my vantage point.

I live in a densely populated area of Chicago and Comcastic is my ISP. My experience is that, fairly often, the intertubes become clogged. Heavy traffic slows my connection appreciably. It’s important to understand how the cable ISP systems are managed. My condo, like yours if you have a cable ISP, does not have an individual line back to Comcast’s central office. My condo is wired to a local node which has approximately 450 other connections drawing from the same pool of bandwidth. As a result, if as few as 15 BitTorrent upload sessions are running concurrently, every connection on that node may see an appreciable slow-down in their internet access.

This is my point, I think. It would be great if bandwidth flowed from Comcast’s pipes like water over Niagara Falls. It would be great if AT&T ran an OC-48 straight into your living room. It would be great if ISPs would just upgrade their whole system, thereby allowing us all to download pirated episodes of I Love Lucy til our hearts content.

But since that will cost billions and billions of dollars, it isn’t going to happen immediately. Consequently, we need to examine the range of options that are actually available to us. How do we get the ISPs to upgrade as much of their systems as possible? How much of the bandwidth that I pay for am I willing to allow BitTorrent clients to consistently use? How much bandwidth am I going to use from the novice user next door who barely uses his email? These are the questions that need to be asked and answered rationally. Its no good for us to act like Diggenerates. There are enough of them on the internet already.


But, we were supposed to be talking about media consumption. Not bandwidth usage. Not things that annoy me on the internet. In reality however, how we consume media and how much bandwidth we consume are hopelessly intertwined. And they will be for the foreseeable future.

Ninety-some-odd-percent of the bandwidth running to your home is not allocated to internet usage. It is restricted to the transmission of video. Some audio, but mostly video. I’m talking about standard fare cable television of course. The throughput of your internet connection may be measured in mbs but the throughput of your digital cable television is in the gbs.

Video, whether it be television or dvd or youtube or bittorrent permeates our society. More than that, its fairly central to our society. Hours and hours of our lives revolve around watching television. Experiencing television. Sharing television.

There is little reason to think that that will change in the future. As a result, television or video or media or whatever we term it is likely to be the driving force which shapes the internet. In fact, it could be argued that the freedom to consume media, primarily video, in the manner and format of your choosing is what really is at the heart of the net neutrality debate.

Already, consumption of video over the internet is widespread and it is bandwidth intensive. But consumption of video on the internet is dwarfed in comparison to the amount of bandwidth consumed and data transferred via more traditional means (e.g. cable, satellite, dvd).

If we have any hope of predicting how we will use media in the future, then we must first make an attempt to understand how we consume media today. Focusing the discussion on video allows us to establish a reference point as we move our net neutrality discussion forward. It will allow us to create a baseline from which we can make reasonable guesses about the direction that media consumption heading. It will allow for a rational discussion of what we require from our ISPs.

The Current Video Distribution Model

The big media companies have perfected a distribution model that allows them to squeeze every last dollar out of their video properties. How are they able to do this? With selective distribution through multiple channels with the intent of inducing consumers to pay for the same product over and over.

1. Theater
2. DVD Rental
3. DVD Purchase
4. Pay-per-view/On Demand
5. Movie Channels
6. Network Television
7. TNT, TBS, etc.

A few of these distribution channels overlap. Nowadays you’re probably just as likely to wait for the home release (DVD or PPV) of a new movie as you are to go watch it in a theater. You may not catch the network distribution of Season 5 of the Wire because you don’t have HBO, but you can buy or rent the entire season on dvd when it comes out later. You’re probably unlikely to rent a movie first and then go buy it. Consequently, content owners may not induce every person to pay for every means of distribution. You will eventually pay for most of them however. Twenty-dollars to buy a dvd. Four dollars to rent one. Seventy-five cents a month for a cable channel. We consume media in a multitude of ways and we pay different amounts based upon our preferences for immediacy, flexibility and the right to use that media for various amounts of time.

Content companies developed this formula over time as new distribution channels were born. Currently, an eighth distribution channel is in its formative stages: internet downloads.

How Media Is Viewed

Prior to the last decade, the only way to watch video at home was to view it on a standard definition television. This could be done in real time via network distribution or on your own schedule using a vcr. Over the last decade, multiple technological advances have altered the viewing experience and changed viewing habits. These advancements include the dvd, HDTV, the dvr, torrent downloading and internet video sites like YouTube.

The dvd and HDTV have improved but have not really altered the viewing experience. They have improved but not drastically altered the traditional consumption of media in the home (“Home Theater Media”). The HDTV is an improvement in quality over the standard definition television and it has allowed consumers to create a home environment closer to that experienced in a theater. DVD’s are more convenient and of better quality than vhs cassettes, but in most respects they provide a viewing experience that is similar to the vcr.

As most media consumption has gone upscale, there has simultaneously been a substantial portion that has gone downscale (“Downscale Media”). Downscale Media is consumed very differently from the evolving home theater experience. Downscale Media comes in several different forms.

I define Downscale Media as media of inferior quality that is downloaded via the internet and that is generally watched alone on the pc. Downscale Media comes in two forms: Snippet Media and Missed Media.

First, it is important to differentiate torrents that are downloaded and ultimately end up being watched on a television. While downloading dvd quality or high definition media encompasses a new form of media distribution, its consumption is ultimately comparable to watching a dvd on the home theater. High quality torrents are not Downscale Media, they are Home Theater Media.

Snippet Media is essentially Youtube videos. Snippet Media is the instantaneous single serving consumption of small bits of media. Snippet Media may be user generated. Snippet Media may be a single scene from a show or film. Snippet Media may be a best of collection of Ronaldinho goals or Brett Favre interceptions. Snippet Media is not defined by content. Snippet Media is defined by its length and its consumption on the pc in, well, snippets.

Missed Media is media that is normally consumed via the television but which, for a variety of reasons, was not seen or recorded during the regularly schedule broadcast distribution. Missed Media is a single episode of Lost watched on because you were at a dinner party. Missed Media is online distribution of a college basketball game or an Eredivsie soccer game that is not broadcast in your area. For most people, Missed Media is used merely to fill a hole created in your regular consumption of media via traditional broadcast distribution. Missed Media can be saved for future repeated viewing, but it need not be so. Missed Media is inferior to the home theater experience, but it is adequate for filling the holes in the media that you’ve missed.

When Media Is Viewed

Changes in technology have also begun to change when we consume media.

As the selection available on dvd has expanded, it has begun to change viewing habits. Specifically, as new release and back catalog television shows have become available it has, in combination with the internet and dvr, changed when television shows are watched. No longer are consumers tied to the schedule provided the networks. Watching on a dvr allows you to watch on your schedule, usually within a few hours or days of actual broadcast. Viewing an entire season of a television show on dvd within a short period, months after it originally aired, provides a new and arguably better experience than you get from watching on a weekly basis.

The internet has also contributed to the time shifting of media consumption. Torrents can be downloaded before or after the scheduled showing on television or the opening in a theater. Itunes, Unbox or the NBC website allow you to watch on a single serving basis episodes that you have missed. For the most part, there are no longer any time constraints or restrictions upon when media is viewed. If you want to find a way to view a particular video, in some format or size you can pretty much find a way to do it right now.

One notable exception to this is live events, primarily sports. While DVR’s are used with live events, I think that they are utilized in a different manner. For standard fair television, DVR’s have two purposes: time shifting and commercial skipping. Live events don’t fit neatly into this model. The appeal of a sporting event diminishes rather quickly if not viewed live. It doesn’t diminish entirely, but there is no doubt that my preference is to watch them at least “semi-live,” such that you get to the end of the dvr’d event as close to real time as possible. With live media, commercial skipping tends to lose out to time shifting. More precisely, commercial skipping via dvr loses out to commercial skipping the old fashioned way: changing the channel or hitting mute.

Will the Schism Be Healed?

I suspect that the common perception is that the schism described above between Home Theater Media and Downscale Media will eventually be closed. That perception is understandable. As the internet has matured, most things have tended to get better. Processing speeds, broadband speed, monitor resolution, web interfaces. They’ve all gradually improved over the last decade. Its natural to think then that as time passes, the same thing will happen with YouTube. Eventually encoding algorithms and broadband speeds will improve enough that you will be able to watch full size YouTube clips on your living room HDTV. Once that stage is reached, the recent schism between Home Theater Media and Downscale Media will be healed.

As I’ll discuss next time however, this is unlikely to happen in the near future. If ever.
For the foreseeable future, the internet will not be the primary means of delivery of video to your television. Why can I say this? Primarily because Google says that the IP architecture necessary to deliver video does not scale. “The Web infrastructure, and even Google’s [infrastructure] doesn’t scale. It’s not going to offer the quality of service that consumers expect,” Vincent Dureau, Google’s head of TV technology, said at the Cable Europe Congress.”

Related Reading:
  • The Internet Will Not Replace Television
  • Media Consumption in the Internet Age
  • Lessons Learned from the 1996 Telecom Act
  • Tying and Bundling Raises Cable Prices
  • Cable Television: Cost per Channel
  • Would “A La Carte Cable” Reduce Cable Television Costs?
  • Net Neutrality: FAQ