Today’s announcement that Apple is seeking a deal with Comcast to gain special data delivery priority on Comcast’s subscriber network (to feed video and content to AppleTV’s) is the second part of the double-tap that marks the end of the beginning of the end for Net Neutrality. The first was when, despite the fact that Netflix CEO Reed Hastings had spoken passionately about preserving a Neutral Network in February 2014, it became clear that Netflix had done a similar thing and paid for priority access on Comcast’s network to deliver streams in a prioritized class of data service.
These are only three companies we’re talking about here, so what’s the fuss?
Well, for starters Comcast is not only the largest Cable (and consumer Internet) provider in the country, but it’s about to become the largererest. The numbers are staggering. 39% of Americans get their internet via Cable Modems (source: NCTA), which is the largest non-cellular (which takes 43%) Internet access mode nationwide (DSL is in distant second with 11%). This means that Comcast is now positioning itself to to become the largest provider in the largest terrestrial mode of Internet access in the US (Cox, Verizon and AT&T claim ~5 million subscribers each, with trails the Comcast-TWC goliath of some 30 million customers). In short, this level of market share means that Comcast’s Internet service will be the portal through which everyone needs to cram to reach customers.
Apple and Netflix are the most valuable company in America and the largest source of Internet traffic in the US, respectively. What the articles linked up top point to are three commanding data points that set both precedent and the trajectory of a trend line that essentially may make it trivial for any smaller ISP to follow suit and at least offer preferred data prioritization. The snowball has, as of last month, left the top of the mountain.
What’s bonkers about this whole thing is that it was not, as many feared, a massive ISP clamping down on public Internet bandwidth and spinning up a pay-to-transmit speedy toll lane, but rather the complete lack of sufficient data infrastructure making actual customer traffic/usage so unbearable that content providers (i.e. Netflix), not the service providers (i.e. Comcast) were willing to pay to make the quality of their services stay up to consumers’ expectations, and perhaps better than the next guy’s. Indeed, here we see Apple and Netflix dueling in the streaming video space, all on Comcast’s not-so-dumb pipes.
This is bonkers. All Time Warner and Comcast had to do, in the end, was wait, and not have a robust enough network to support their customers’ needs. The congestion that resulted from customer demand in conjunction from the lack of willingness of the ISPs to properly peer their networks (and why would they? it’s expensive and benefits their competition since they are both content providers for streaming video and content delivery services for the whole Internet) lead the companies that want/need/rely on the “last mile” from Comcast/Verizon/etc to pay dearly to keep things running not better, but like they should or used to.
I was part of a We The People Petition to make Internet providers like Comcast and Verizon be classified as “Common Carriers”, which got over 100,000 signatures and did get an official response. The FCC and the White House have a role to play here, and so far there is plenty of vague talk of support but little action that would suggest they are willing to take on the world’s largest media company with a tenth of the US population as cable customers (and Comcast is only one ISP). If the Common Carrier rule were to be applied to these ISPs, they might be compelled to create properly peered, robust networks capable of agnostic content delivery, and perhaps would not be able to accept offers for prioritized services.
As the Verge describes pretty well, we’ve allowed the single most valuable resource of the modern age to become a quagmire of private interests. We can fix it, but it’ll take work, and it’ll but up against the most profitable companies in the world and their lobby power.
But it’s worth it. Not just to watch House of Cards.