Monday, February 24, 2014

Comcast is probably not cheating ... yet

Within the last few days, Comcast agreed to purchase Time Warner Cable and Netflix agreed to pay Comcast for direct access to their network. Will Netflix pass the Comcast payments along to us consumers? Will we get better quality and fewer pauses for buffering? Is this the end of network neutrality regardless of anything the FCC might do to restore it? Is this the beginning of the end for the good old Internet we have grown to love?

Maybe not.

It is true that Netflix will be paying Comcast for direct access to their network, but they will save what they had previously been paying intermeidate transit networks like Cogent. The overall cost to Netflix may be more, less or the same -- terms of the deal have not been disclosed. Don't get me wrong -- I doubt that they will be saving money, and, if they do, I am sure they will not pass the savings on to us consumers.

How about speed increases? Netflix has acknowledged performance problems, and this deal should help. It is practically certain that we will see improved performance, even if the blockage was done on purpose. (Hey, that was some good news).

This may not even be a violation of network neutrality. Couldn't the delays have been due to capacity problems of intermediate networks rather than Comcast? Is there evidence that Comcast was dropping or delaying Netflix packets? This is not to say that Comcast was not discriminating against Netflix traffic or that they may not in the future, but, as far as I know, there is no evidence that they did. (Where is Edward Snowden when you need him)?

Don't get me wrong -- I have nothing good to say about my ISP -- Time Warner Cable -- and I am confident that the situation will be even worse if the Comcast deal is approved. That sort of concentrated power cannot be good for anyone except those who have it.

Timothy Lee points out that one result of that concentration may be the elimination of the transit ISPs like Cogent, who are in a competitive market. Comcast and other companies that connect consumers face little or no competition.

GigaOm's Stacey Higginbotham has suggested that transparency -- opening the terms of these deals to public scrutiny -- might be a solution, but I am skeptical.

The following images show the route between one's home and Netflix before the agreement with Comcast, the way it is now that the deal has been done and the way it will end up if Comcast has their way.

Before the agreement, transit ISPs connected us to Netflix servers.
Now our ISPs connect us straight to Comcast.
After the merger, Comcast will be my ISP.