On Monday, Google and Verizon issued a joint proposal on the issue of network neutrality, or net neutrality. In it, the companies map out how they feel on the subject and issue a list of rules they believe should be adopted industry-wide. So what is this all about and why should filmmakers care? Give me a few paragraphs.
First, a definition from the extensive Wikipedia article: “At its simplest network neutrality is the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally.” You can read the two-page proposal. If the lawyer-speak gets you down, Engadget’s Nilay Patel offers a clear breakdown of every point, while John Bergmayer at Public Knowledge gives some great perspective on the implications of the document. If that’s not enough, you can read the joint post on Google’s and Verizon’s public policy blogs. The two companies also co-authored an op-ed in Tuesday’s Washington Post.
Bits of Bits
There are two parts of Google and Verizon’s proposal that should worry filmmakers and audience members alike. The first one is their provision for “Additional Online Services”. There is no clear cut definition for what these additional services could be, but when asked on a conference call, Verizon’s CEO Ivan Seidenberg used 3D content as an example. If 3D content is considered an additional service, then why not video?
Broadband high-speed Internet connections have become the norm in the last decade, and the film industry has flourished because of it. Sites like iTunes, Netflix, Amazon Video and YouTube offer filmmakers, both mainstream and independent, more options for reaching out to audiences than ever before. Thanks to the availability of high speed broadband connections, we can deliver high quality video near-instantaneously. Also, as Greencine Daily’s Vadim Rizov pointed out recently, digitally equipped theaters represent about 15% of all movie screens worldwide. Digital films are projected from a series of files, sent out over a secure high-speed connection. Even productions make extensive use of broadband, allowing for editors to be in one base location where footage can be uploaded to them on a daily basis. In other words, the film industry relies on incredible amounts of bandwidth.
But bits are bits and bytes are bytes, correct? This mention of additional services suggests otherwise. The, proposal keeps things unclear (the whole definition of these services is 106 words) but mentions “traffic prioritization” as one use case, meaning some data will get to make use of more badwidth while other data will not. The fear in this case is that Verizon, or any ISP for that matter, could offer lucrative prioritization contracts to some movie companies, ones not viewed as competitors, while leaving others out. Let’s say they strike a deal with AMC Theaters but not Landmark, then Landmark would of course have to go with another ISP. But these exclusivity deals would only go so far before either bandwidth runs out or partnerships dry up, meaning the little guys won’t be able to compete anymore.
What happens when theatrical video file sizes become smaller and video codecs become more robust? One day, perhaps, video streaming won’t require as much bandwidth, but these services could already be in place. So those theaters who are still around would still be paying for legacy technology for no reason. Another example is video editing. Until Apple introduced its “ProRes 422 (Proxy)” codec, their larger “ProRes 422” was the smallest editable HD codec. If a post-production companies leases bandwidth in order to move “ProRes 422” because it is considered an additional service, will it be stuck with the same agreement once it switches to “ProRes 422 (Proxy)” even though the files would be small enough to use their standard broadband connection? Google and Verizon have no answer to these questions.
The second, and more worrisome issue of the proposal is how the corporations refer to wireless broadband technologies. They make a clear distinction between wired and wireless, not based on connectivity but based on content and services. While most of the proposal ensures an open Internet over a wired connection, it makes no such provision for wireless technologies, citing its “still-developing nature”. According to this plan, there become two Internets: the wired and the wireless. Uh, what?
In my original Google Wave for Filmmakers concept, which I recently revised after Wave’s demise, I mentioned the possibility of cameras that could upload footage straight to the web for editing by a remote team. Today’s wireless systems, like those that provide Internet connections for iPhones and Blackberrys, are not fast enough to handle the load of uncompressed video. One day they will be, and when that day comes we will have professional-grade video cameras with high-speed data connections. That way, you can shoot and send your footage right to your editors, from anywhere in the world. Or will that ability be hampered by Google and Verizon’s implication that wireless data is somehow different from wired data?
On the distribution end of things, today’s most advanced smartphones can play HD video on their high resolution screens, but there is still no way to get that data to them over their wireless connections. HD streaming is usually limited to WiFi connections, and downloads cap out at 10 or 20 megabytes depending on your provider. These bottlenecks are purportedly in place to keep the network active because it can’t handle the data load. An ulterior motive could be that wireless providers, like Verizon and AT&T, could strike exclusivity deals with different content partners and share revenue from the sales. In this case, Disney could sell it’s HD content wirelessly only to Verizon customers. Independent filmmakers who don’t have the marketing power to set up such contracts would be left out of wireless distribution completely.
This may all seem academic today, when digital projection is slowly getting off to a start and highly compressed (read: crappy) mobile video is the norm. In the next two decades, wireless broadband will probably supplant wired broadband for most of our network solutions. Just look at how far mobile computing has come in the last five years. Imagine what the landscape will be like in one hundred years. Will we have set events in motion that limit innovation and set back independent film distribution?
As an online publisher, a cinephile and someone who works in the film industry, I am deeply disturbed by Google and Verizon’s proposal. I cannot support it and I encourage you to learn about what’s at stake. The digital revolution has invigorated the independent film movement, bringing films to light that otherwise could not be funded/distributed. By giving up on the most basic concept of the networked world, that there is one Internet, we are also giving up on a bright future for cinema. Public Knowledge has drafted a letter you can send to your congressperson. Send it in, take action, and voice your opinion.