ESPN Considers Subsidizing Mobile Data Plans

ESPN is at least considering a scenario where it would pay for bandwidth consumed by mobile users of its content and apps, removing a barrier to usage, as ESPN content consumption would not count against a user's data cap. 

In principle, that is similar to the business arrangement Amazon has with AT&T to deliver Kindle content to tablet users. Amazon downloads are paid for by Amazon, so the end user does not incur usage that counts against a consumption cap. 

Such a move by ESPN would be quite significant, as it would effectively create a new revenue stream for mobile ISPs while removing a barrier to end user consumption of highly-valued content. 

Under one scenario, the company would pay a carrier to guarantee that people viewing ESPN mobile content wouldn't have that usage counted toward their monthly data caps.

Some will object to such business deals between ISPs and app providers. The logic is that it potentially creates an uneven playing field for ESPN and other providers of similar content. Others will argue such deals are not dissimilar from app provider use of content delivery networks to enhance end user experience. 

App providers using CDNs do have an experience advantage over other firms that do not use CDNs. 

But such a plan would have clear consumer benefits, would create another revenue stream for mobile ISPs clamoring for such new revenue sources and would remove a key barrier to use of ESPN content on a mobile device, principally the usage implications. 

Some might say the possible new approach is a reasonable application of the notion that innovations within the ecosystem should occur as parties see mutual benefit, and not from rules imposed from the outside. 

Still, many app providers would resist such a precedent, and some think the Federal Communications Commission would almost certainly conclude it has to evaluate such deals as possibly requiring application of "network neutrality" rules to mobile networks, even though mobile networks presently are exempt from the "best effort only" approach applied to fixed network providers. 

Opinions of course will vary. Some believe network neutrality should not apply to any ISPs, since it prohibits creation of features end users might themselves want, such as quality of service guarantees, preference for voice, videoconferencing or video entertainment streams, when those are used. 

Others believe network neutrality rules are fairer to small app providers and will help prevent marketplace abuses, such as ISPs favoring their own content over similar content provided by unaffiliated parties.

Others would argue that if online content providers are to garner advertising revenues commensurate with viewership and engagement, then impediments to viewership need to be overcome. And there is no question but that data caps discourage usage. 

Large Internet service providers have in the past pointedly suggested that application providers pay them for access to their networks and customers. The argument, in part, rests on the fact that some apps, especially video entertainment apps, represent unusually large demands on the network. 

The wider context is that shares of revenue within the Internet ecosystem are viewed as disproportionate, at least by ISPs. But the possible ESPN approach simultaneously provides end user benefit, value for ESPN and mobile ISPs. 

It's a big deal.


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