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The future of TV depends on democratized access to the internet

The Guardian on the future of TV:

The plan, after years of rumour, is for all TV output to be available online only within the next 10 years or so. Broadcast channels, with their daily line-up of shows, are doomed. Programmes (originally so-called because they were “programmed”) will come into our homes as streamed, branded products, rather than being beamed to viewers on a pre-ordained timetable.

This has previously been confirmed by the BBC:

The BBC is preparing to shut down its traditional television and radio broadcasts as it becomes an online-only service over the next decade, according to the director general, Tim Davie.

In the UK two years ago, 97% of households had access to the internet. The average cost is £30 a month, which incidentally nets out at just under half of the annual license fee British antenna owners have traditionally had to pay to gain access to broadcast television. Of course, if the license fee goes away, which it may well do in a streaming-only context, the net cost is lower. And subsidies are available to pay for the cost.

Here in the US, that number was only 85% - a decrease from a year previously. Even that is an underreported statistic: many of those internet connections are terrible. Research from Microsoft indicates that over 163 million Americans don’t have broadband internet access. The average cost is around $61 a month. With no BBC iPlayer in sight, Americans then have to pay eye-watering fees to get TV access: YouTube TV, for example, is $65 a month. Considering the average US mobile phone bill is an absurd $114 per month, Americans are wildly overpaying for data, putting it far out of reach of a lot of ordinary people.

Will this picture have changed much in ten years? It’s hard to see how without a lot of legislation. ISPs are not incentivized to lower prices, particularly considering significant local monopolies:

In the US, however, just a few big companies, often without overlap, control much of the telecom industry, and the result is high prices and uneven connectivity. […] “Broadly speaking, over the last 20 years in the US, we see profits of incumbents becoming more persistent, because they are less challenged, their market share has become both larger and more stable, and at the same time, we see a lot of lobbying by incumbents, in particular to get their mergers approved or to protect their rents,” [NYU economist Thomas] Philippon told me.

There’s a lot to be gained by television moving to an internet-only standard. Access will no longer be governed by spectrum auctions or cable providers: theoretically, any organization will be able to create a channel and stand on more or less equal footing. The days of bundled cable channels - get two that you want and eighty that you don’t - will finally go away.

But for this to work, access to the internet must be made available to all. That means creating more competition in local broadband markets (or nationalizing the lot, but hell will freeze over first), ensuring that everybody has a good standard of connection, protecting net neutrality, and radically lowering prices.

If one happens without the other, we’ll create a giant information divide that will further erode democracy. Effectively, only the relatively wealthy will have access to the news. News deserts already reduce democratic participation and increase corruption:

“We already live in a polarized country, and part of that polarization stems from our digital divide and our local-news divide,” [researcher into news deserts Penelope Muse Abernathy] told me. “We have to think about how we reach people who aren’t digitally connected, and how we can support efforts that get beyond the city.”

A further move to the internet without ensuring everyone can use it will compound that problem. Without intervention, that’s likely to be exactly what happens.

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