The sports network ESPN reportedly is talking with a major wireless carrier about a deal to exclude the networks' programs from the monthly data caps, according to The Wall Street Journal. If a deal to that effect goes through, consumers would be able to watch as much ESPN as they want without worrying about whether they're going to be throttled or hit with extra fees for exceeding their monthly data allotment.
In some ways, that type of deal could benefit consumers, who are streaming more and more video to smartphones and tablets. But it also could harm smaller companies that offer streaming video but can't pay large fees to the carriers. Content from that group of companies would remain subject to data caps, which could discourage people from streaming it -- or at least streaming as much of it as material that isn't capped.
In that sense, a deal between ESPN and carriers raises some of the same issues as Comcast's decision to let Xfinity subscribers stream unlimited video to their Xboxes. That arrangement appears good for subscribers, but not so great for Netflix, Hulu and other online video providers -- who are now at a disadvantage because their streams still count toward a monthly maximum.
Consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge -- which loudly opposes carriers' attempts to impose data caps -- says that news of ESPN's talks with a wireless company highlights the problems with limits on data consumption. The group points out that data caps can effectively undercut neutrality rules, which are supposed to prevent carriers from blocking content.
“At its core, net neutrality is all about making sure that the company that connects you to the internet does not get to control what you do on the internet,” the group says. “Imposing data caps on consumers and then allowing wealthy content holders to buy their way around them is a recipe for stagnation online.”