Comcast, Netflix and Why Municipal Networks Matter

Comcast is apparently a bit of a slow learner. After getting publicly smacked about for tinkering with bitTorrent, they’ve really stepped in it now by messing with Netflix. The audience is much bigger than the guys running protocol analyzers on their connections; you’ve gone and upset regular folks too. (How do you see that one working out?) Unfortunately, this is playing out as badly as anyone can hope.

Comcast is unfortunately trying to realize the dream of Ed Whitacre by essentially double-dipping for data at a time when bandwidth is so cheap you can almost afford to give it away. Imagine if the phone company tried to charge you for making a call and the recipient on another phone network for receiving it. Can you imagine the uproar and outrage at attempting to bill someone that’s not even their customer? That’s what Comcast is essentially doing, trying to charge both sides of the transaction instead of providing you the service you already paid for.

Comcast’s economic arguments also don’t hold up. Paying any more than 1.5 cents per GB would be exorbitant for a company of their size, so your generous 250GB cap is really just shy of $4/mo in bandwidth. (I’m sure it’s much less than that, especially after you remove on-net traffic, but let’s use an unrealistically high number.) Meanwhile, they’re hitting most of us up for $60/mo in access. Even factoring in the cost of on-network transport, general overhead, and so forth, Comcast is coming out with fat sacks full of cash money at the end. It’s hard to feel sorry for them or empathize with their position.

The only reason any of this matters is because the competitive landscape is so poor in the US that you can potentially be left without any broadband options. If Comcast wins this round and Qwest follows suit, what then? Most of us have only those two options. Mobile broadband already comes with caps so low (and often signals just as weak) that they don’t provide a viable alternative. I can burn through 5GB in just a couple of days. The short version is that we could be looking at a market that responds not to any customer need, but to the demand for more and more money.

Sadly, the most vocal solution is to ask the FCC to keep on pushing for network neutrality regulations. That’s a big mistake. Net neutrality enforced by FCC fiat and subject to change with the occupant of the White House is no more a protection against badly-behaving ISPs than a screen door at keeping a burglar out of your home. Any “protection” that can change with the political winds is no protection at all.

No, what we need is real retail ISP competition. If Comcast thought this would result in an exodus of their customer base, they wouldn’t even try it. But they don’t, and they’re right. Many customers jumped to Comcast because, amazingly, the phone company was worse. Some don’t have any other options for broadband. It’s a captive customer base and until customers can truly vote with their pocketbooks, they will continue to push these anti-customer policies.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the FCC is capable of encouraging competition. The 1984 break-up of Ma Bell just created a bunch of smaller monopolies. The Telco Act of ’96 let the telcos stack the deck in their favor so that the new competing providers didn’t even have a chance. The current net neutrality proposal has been heartily endorsed by the incumbents. They function less as a regulatory agency protecting the general public from the monstrous monopolies they created and more of a lap-dog putting on appearances while they continue to entrench the companies they are supposed to watch. States aren’t exactly going to do much either. They usually defer to the FCC and even when they get some kind of concessions, they are usually a pittance that rarely gets enforced. They’re so overwhelmed by the well-greased lobbying machines of multi-billion-dollar entrenched monopolists that they don’t even stand a chance.

The only glimmer of hope on this front are municipal networks. They are the only ones providing the kind of disruption we need. From speeds of 1Gbps+ to over a dozen competing companies, municipal networks are delivering results, the kind of results that decades of FCC policy has failed to even come close to. And why is this important? Because with that level of competition, a company couldn’t possibly get away with trying to block or charge extra for access to a specific service. Because of the immense capacity of the last-mile networks, managing congestion is a trivial matter. They are much better equipped to actually provide customers what they want instead of making that a secondary concern.

So FCC, stop charging at the net neutrality windmill. You too, Free Press, Public Knowledge, et. al. Try and actually fix the problem instead of putting a bandage on it.

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2 Responses to Comcast, Netflix and Why Municipal Networks Matter

  1. u235sentinel says:

    If only there were competition. I mean REAL competition. Providing the same services and not similar services as our Senators and Representatives were talking about nearly 4 years ago.

    I remember the discussion and have it documented. I’m aghast with the limited vision these people have when it comes to technology.

    Hell, bandwidth is soo cheap now that companies like Verizon is providing long distance service for free! There are no extra charges now. And why bother with charging for it. It doesn’t cost them anything anymore!

    Nearly 4 years ago we were booted off Concast for using it too much (before their 250 gig a month announcement). Been with Qwest ever since. I know it’s not better service wise however it IS an improvement over Concast’s crappy treatment of my family. Now that’s sad.

  2. Brett Glass says:

    Want competition? Then do not kill it by regulating the Net. I am one of more than 4,000 small, independent Internet service providers whose existence will be in jeopardy if the currently proposed rules – written by Google, which desires to perpetuate its multiple Internet monopolies – are imposed. These rules would sting large providers of Internet service, but would wipe out smaller ones. What is needed instead is simple transparency and promotion of competition – things that the FCC could do without new rules but has not focused on. (Why? Because small competitors have no political clout. Google, on the other hand, gave nearly $1M to Obama, who appointed the FCC’s Chairman.) In the meantime, the FCC should scrap the very destructive rules it is now considering.

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