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Missing the Big Picture

Setting aside the more extreme policies that would toss customers overboard for watching video in the wrong way, the carriers' top-down model of video programming still doesn't make much sense. Not only is it no friend to their customers, it doesn't help their own long-term interests much, either.

No single programming department can outstrip the creativity of the entire Internet. When carriers limit the choice of programming to whatever sites or services can strike the best deal with carriers -- wriggling past the usual palace guard of marketing reps and lawyers -- they weaken the entire appeal of phone video.

Imagine if Web video had been limited to whatever table scraps the movie studios and TV networks were willing to throw online, without any competitive pressure from upstarts like, for instance, the YouTube of a year ago. That's the basic model of mobile-phone video as we know it.

There is reason for hope, however: It's not as if the carriers haven't made this mistake before. They let their own worst instincts lead them to impose arbitrary limits and rules around basic voice and messaging services. Calls to landline phones once cost extra, while text messaging might only have worked with people using the same carrier.

Those restrictions eventually fell away, as carriers realized they'd make more money if they focused on making their services as useful to customers as possible.

The same thing has to happen at some point with video. Right?

Maybe not. It's not as if any amount of business logic has been able to coax all the major carriers into allowing customers to use any compatible phone on their networks, instead of just those that they sell directly.

And even if every wireless carrier suddenly began treating online video like any other data use, subject to no more restriction than a monthly download quota, we'd still have the slight issue that cellphones aren't necessarily much fun for watching video.

Their screens are too small, the sound too tinny, and you can't use the phone at all in the one place where you'd be most willing to put up with those limits -- a middle seat in economy class on a transcontinental flight.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrobp@washpost.com.


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