Comcast often seems to be in the news for all the wrong reasons and lately, that has been the case even more so than usual. The company recently announced that it was expanding its data cap program into eight additional markets for a total of 27, and we explained why the company’s data caps are a huge problem not just for Comcast subscribers, but for all of us. Then our attention turned to the company’s new Stream TV service, for which Comcast took a page out of T-Mobile’s net neutrality bending playbook.
But is Stream TV really as bad for net neutrality as it seems? Sadly, it’s even worse than many people think.
Stream TV is an “Internet TV” service aimed at cord cutters that offers a small, inexpensive bundle of TV channels to users who do not have a conventional TV service package. For $15 per month, users get access to standard live TV content from ABC, CBS, CW, FOX, NBC, PBS, Univision and HBO, as well as on demand video content. And as Comcast confirmed to the media when it announced the service, Stream TV content does not count against data caps for users in any of the 27 markets that now have 300GB caps.
First things first. The obvious initial issue here is that Comcast is giving itself an unfair advantage in the streaming TV market, as we discussed in our earlier coverage. Why would anyone subscribe to Sling TV, for example, when they can subscribe to Stream TV instead and watch TV shows, sports and movies without worrying about their data caps?
But as it turns out, there’s more to it than that.
You might notice that Internet TV is in quotes a few paragraphs back. Why? A quick visit to the FAQ page for Comcast’s Stream TV service reveals the following section:
Will Stream TV use data from my XFINITY Internet monthly data usage allowance?
No, Stream TV is a cable streaming service delivered over Comcast’s cable system, not over the Internet. Therefore, Stream TV data usage will not be counted towards your XFINITY Internet monthly data usage.
We already knew that Comcast’s new service didn’t count against its data caps, but the devil is in the details. “Stream TV is a cable streaming service delivered over Comcast’s cable system, not over the Internet.” In other words, Stream TV is an IP TV service, but it’s delivered over the same managed network as Comcast’s standard TV service rather than over the Internet.
It might seem harmless enough, but we can now see that Comcast is exploring — and finding — new ways to deliver services that get around the FCC’s net neutrality guidelines in ways the company’s rivals cannot compete with and will not ever be able to compete with. Not only does Comcast have an advantage over rivals like Sling TV, it has an advantage that is impossible for rivals to overcome.
Whereas T-Mobile’s “Binge On” bends net neutrality by offering subscribers access to T-Mobile’s streaming TV service without having that data count against their caps, it also at least includes some rival services in its scheme. This is still a huge problem for net neutrality, but it is without question the lesser of two evils. Can Stream TV rivals use Comcast’s managed network to deliver service that won’t count against Comcast customers’ data caps? Of course not, and so Comcast will always have the upper hand here.
This is a very important space to watch. Comcast is one of the largest television and Internet service providers in the United States, and it’s writing the book on creating a market that somehow stifles competition just as much as — or even perhaps even more than — the monopoly system U.S. cable TV subscribers have endured for decades. Only this time, Comcast is using the Internet to do it.