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Is FCC net neutrality policy forcing investors to play broadband providers off of video streaming services?

Do we regulate vans when used to deliver newspapers to grocery stores or pharmacies?  Do we ask grocery stores or pharmacies to disclose the contracts they enter into for displaying The Wall Street Journal or People Magazine on their shelves?  Renting a van to deliver magazines or striking placement deals with grocery stores and pharmacies is the cost of doing business that magazines and newspapers incur when distributing their product and I don’t see why online content providers like Netflix should avoid the same costs of business under a disingenous practice of open internet or net neutrality.

The Federal Communications Commission so far has successfully skirted this argument, having phrased net neutrality as a consumer’s rights issue versus what it truly is: a cost-of-doing business issue for content providers who would rather not pay Comcast, Verizon, or Time Warner a fee to interconnect opting instead for a “bill and keep” scenario.  But like any other media company, Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon should be responsible for putting together their own content production and distribution network.

On the content side these companies will hire their own staff to create content in-house or hire a production company to provide them a set amount of programming.  They will, in the case of movies or television, pay licensing fees that enable them to re-broadcast a television or theatrical production.

The distribution side is trickier.  Netflix depends on mid-mile providers like Cogent and last mile providers like Comcast to connect their content to final end-users or consumers.  To keep these distribution costs low, Netflix would prefer to interconnect at no costs with last-mile providers. In its latest 10-K report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Netflix describes risks related to its relationship with last-mile providers:

“We rely upon the ability of consumers to access our service through the Internet. To the extent that network operators implement usage based pricing, including meaningful bandwidth caps, or otherwise try to monetize access to their networks by data providers, we could incur greater operating expenses and our member acquisition and retention could be negatively impacted. Furthermore, to the extent network operators create tiers of Internet access service and either charge us for or prohibit us from being available through these tiers, our business could be negatively impacted.
Most network operators that provide consumers with access to the Internet also provide these consumers with multichannel video programming. As such, many network operators have an incentive to use their network infrastructure in a manner adverse to our continued growth and success. For example, Comcast exempted certain of its own Internet video traffic (e.g., Streampix videos to the Xbox 360) from a bandwidth cap that applies to all unaffiliated Internet video traffic (e.g., Netflix videos to the Xbox 360).
While we believe that consumer demand, regulatory oversight and competition will help check these incentives, to the extent that network operators are able to provide preferential treatment to their data as opposed to ours or otherwise implement discriminatory network management practices, our business could be negatively impacted. In some international markets, these same incentives apply however, the consumer demand, regulatory oversight and competition may not be as strong as in our domestic market.”

The irony of Netflix’s statement on the threats broadband operators impose on their streaming business is that a few paragraphs prior to this statement, Netflix describes these providers as partners, specifically when it comes to streaming over devices provided by cable and telecommunications companies:

“We currently offer members the ability to receive streaming content through a host of Internet-connected devices, including TVs, digital video players, television set-top boxes and mobile devices. We have agreements with various cable, satellite and telecommunications operators to make our service available through the television set-top boxes of these service providers. We intend to continue to broaden our capability to instantly stream TV shows and movies to other platforms and partners over time.

If we are not successful in maintaining existing and creating new relationships, or if we encounter technological, content licensing or other impediments to delivering our streaming content to our members via these devices, our ability to grow our business could be adversely impacted. Our agreements with our device partners are typically between one and three years in duration and our business could be adversely affected if, upon expiration, a number of our partners do not continue to provide access to our service or are unwilling to do so on terms acceptable to us, which terms may include the degree of accessibility and prominence of our service.

Furthermore, devices are manufactured and sold by entities other than Netflix and while these entities should be responsible for the devices’ performance, the connection between these devices and Netflix may nonetheless result in consumer dissatisfaction toward Netflix and such dissatisfaction could result in claims against us or otherwise adversely impact our business. In addition, technology changes to our streaming functionality may require that partners update their devices. If partners do not update or otherwise modify their devices, our service and our members’ use and enjoyment could be negatively impacted.”

The consumer-centric statement caters to the public net neutrality argument of supposed threats posed by broadband providers but the statement describing broadband providers as partners, in my opinion, captures the reality of the relationship between content providers like Netflix and broadband providers.  The way to look at how a seamless internet service experience is provided is to look at the components necessary for getting digital product to the consumer.  Netflix has to coordinate via contract the prodiuction of content and its distribution.  It has demonstrated that it can and has entered into the necessary agreements with wireline and wireless providers to get its content distributed to consumers.

As a going concern I expect Netflix to take initiative in reducing its costs of delivery but using government regulation as the method for mitigating costs eventually is not in the consumer’s best interest nor in investor best interests.  Broadband providers will pass on the increased costs of traffic delivery and net neutrality regulatory compliance to consumers.  Increased costs of broadband access will cause consumers to look for other cable or wireless platforms, including different tiers of service which will have a negative impact on broadband operator revenues in the longer run.  Netflix may see a temporary bump in profits but as consumers decide to downgrade service, access to Netflix may be one of those services consumers may end up doing without.

 

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