Regulation often makes no sense, particularly in times when technology is transforming an industry. There is no better example of this than the way we regulate cable TV today.
Traditional cable TV is heavily regulated at the federal, state, and local levels. The FCC website has a nice summary of the history of federal cable regulation. The industry is less heavily regulated today than it was forty years ago, but there are still a lot of federal regulations that apply to cable TV. At the local level, franchise taxes levied on cable service are a huge revenue source for local government.
The FCC website includes a definition of cable television as follows: “Cable television is a video delivery service provided by a cable operator to subscribers via a coaxial cable or fiber optics. Programming delivered without a wire via satellite or other facilities is not “cable television” under the Commission’s definitions.”
All of the federal cable regulations are aimed at cable TV signal that enters the home via a coaxial or fiber wire. Satellite or wireless delivery of television signal is not considered to be traditional cable TV, although the FCC does regulate satellite TV under a different set of rules.
The FCC has chosen to ignore its own definition of cable TV for programming that is delivered over the web. I’ve subscribed to the online cable alternatives Sling TV, Playstation Vue, and YouTube TV. Over time those services have come to look more and more like traditional cable TV. My subscription to Playstation Vue (before it folded) included all of the same local channels that I would receive from a traditional cable subscription. The service included a channel guide, and from a functional perspective, it was impossible to make any meaningful distinction between the Playstation Vue product and the same product I might buy from a cable company.
From a technical perspective it’s hard to see the difference between the online programming and traditional cable. Both come into the home over coaxial or fiber cables. Both offer a line-up of local channels and a similar mix of national programming. Both services offer options like DVR service to record programming to watch later. If you were to show both services to somebody who had never seen TV before, they’d probably not see any difference in the two services.
But there is a huge regulatory difference between traditional cable TV and online programming, particularly at the local level. Franchise fees of up to 5% are levied onto traditional cable TV from Charter, Comcast, or AT&T – but no franchise fees are levied against Sling TV or YouTube TV. Cable companies are arguing that this difference alone gives online programming a competitive edge – and it’s hard to disagree with them.
To make matters even more confusing, there are now cable products that sit somewhere in between traditional TV and online TV. ISPs are no longer building cable headends to download cable signal from satellites. Instead they are buying cable channels wholesale. The entire channel line-up is pumped into an ISP on a big broadband connection. The channel line-ups look a lot like both traditional cable channels and online cable line-ups like YouTube TV. In the newest cable wholesale products the ISP doesn’t even need a traditional setup box and can deliver straight to smart TVs or use something like a Roku stick.
For now, most ISPs that are reselling the wholesale TV are registering as cable providers and are collecting franchise fees. But I won’t be surprised if an ISP challenges this and argues that wholesale cable service is not the same as traditional cable TV.e
From a regulatory perspective, our current treatment of cable service is closely analogous to the difference between traditional telephone service and voice over IP (VoIP). ISPs successful fought to define VoIP as a non-regulated service, although there is no functional difference between the two products at the customer level. There is no discernible difference between a telephone line provided by AT&T over telephone wires and telephone service provided by Comcast over cable wires – but the products get a drastically difference regulatory treatment. It’s hard to think that we aren’t going to soon see legal challenges by cable companies trying to avoid collecting franchise fees – and I think there is a decent chance that courts will side with them.