Eventually, caching may go all the way to the phone itself, Marshall said. Content providers are skeptical of that idea, mostly because of copy-protection concerns. But within the next two years or so, they might be willing to make deals with service providers to cache their content closer to viewers, he said. The two sides may see eye to eye then.
"I see the CDN activity as ... a catalyst," Marshall said.
Content caching wouldn't violate net neutrality principles because it doesn't involve bandwidth throttling or other network-management practices, Marshall said.
Still, it might not be worth the risk of a backlash, said analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics. He thinks content providers might sue carriers who asked for payment, and that would shine a spotlight on the request.
"A couple of million here or there isn't worth the pain of having the FCC or state regulators looking over your shoulder," Entner said. The major benefit of caching content in the mobile network would be conserving the operator's own wired backhaul capacity, which could be achieved without discriminating among content sources, Entner believes.
The mix of places where mobile users can get video and ways they can consume it, plus the various business models involving advertising and subscriptions, will complicate the problem for some time, said analyst Avi Greengart of Current Analysis. "In the short term, I don't see anything that's going to slice through all this."
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