Well, not if ESPN has its way. You see, while the rest of the world has been caught-up in the epic battle to maintain net neutrality, ESPN has been quietly doing things the old-fashioned way: they've been forcing ISPs to buy programming from them.
An expert in the "How to Price Television" game, ESPN long ago recognized that success comes not from advertising alone but instead from a mixture of advertising and subscription fees and -- while it might be theoretically possible to charge the customer for their services -- it's just so much darn easier to bill the cable companies and let them deal with customers. And boy has it worked; ESPN often demands and receives upwards of three dollars per subscriber for its services while other non-premium stations collect between 25 and 50 cents. After all, who would want to try and run a cable company that wasn't offering ESPN?
As such, it wasn't a huge shock when earlier this week ESPN rolled out the pricing model for its new web-based ESPN360 service. What will it cost you? Nothing. And Everything! Let me explain. Unlike most companies who use the internet as a way to go straight to the customer, ESPN has instead chosen to mimic the method that's treated them so well in the past; ESPN is attempting to force ISPs to directly buy the service for all their customers, and if your ISP doesn't strike a deal with ESPN, you'll be greeted with a big fat "your ISP doesn't offer this service."
Want ESPN360? Have Comcast Internet? Forget it. Comcast hasn't paid for this service. Don't worry, the good folks at ESPN have been kind enough to give you a list of the preferred providers: Frontier, US Cable, Verizon, BELD, Charter LA, Charter Stl, Grande, Mediacom, MidHudson, SMU, StarStream, MTC, Iowa Network, Services, Conway, and Liberty PR.
You might be (justifiably) tempted to say, "To hell with this. I'm not choosing an ISP just for ESPN360." While that's certainly a reasonable thought -- especially if you're not the type of person who starts to twitch without his / her daily fix of PTI -- that's much easier to do when it's just one content-provider. However, what happens if more and more companies start doing this?
"Wait, isn't this the net neutrality issue?" you ask. No. In fact, in a lot of ways it's the exact opposite. Unlike the issue of net neutrality which primarily deals with matters of QoS (quality of service) or filtering by the ISP, the precedent being set by ESPN is the right/ability of the content providers to force ISPs to pay usage fees on behalf of the ISP's customers. So, instead of an ISP charging companies such as YouTube, Amazon, or whomever to ostensibly recoup the last-mile costs, it's the content companies saying, "our content is so important that you need to pay us for it."
The problem is that, to the user, the result is the same darn thing: the internet is no longer the whole internet, it's now which portion of the internet you'll be able to see. Worse yet, in many ways it's more dangerous. Unlike net neutrality, where the danger comes from ISP's actively disrupting the norm, ESPN's default state is off. This means that smaller niche ISPs who don't have the clout to do deals with ESPN (or others in the future) might find themselves steamrolled. With net neutrality, the smaller, more independent ISPs might still find niches to fill.
Will ESPN's experiment play out? Will this cause others to follow suit? Will you one day have to buy programming packages from your ISP? Only time will tell. One thing is clear -- now more than ever the Internet is not a big dumptruck.
If you have comments or suggestions for future columns feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.