Michael Hiltzik

Comcast, stop saying you 'agree with the President' on net neutrality

Comcast's view of net neutrality couldn't be further from President Obama's despite what it says

The giant cable and Internet company Comcast has been trying to paint itself as a staunch defender of network neutrality. This effort has been wholly misleading, and never so much as in the company's response Tuesday to President Obama's outspoken defense of the principle, when it issued a statement headlined:

"Surprise! We agree with the President's Principles on Net Neutrality."

But a close reading of Comcast's statement, and an understanding of its recent corporate history, will tell you: No, it doesn't. 

President Obama on Monday called for a ban on blocking or throttling of online content providers by Internet service providers such as Comcast, and an "explicit ban on paid prioritization," which enables big, wealthy online services -- think Netflix or Google -- to pay ISPs for preferential carriage to your home or office. By extension, of course, that shoulders smaller services aside.

"No service should be stuck in a 'slow lane' because it does not pay a fee," Obama said, concisely articulating the principle of net neutrality.

Most importantly, he called for the Federal Communications Commission to reclassify broadband as a common carrier "telecommunications service" under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, reversing a bad decision the FCC made in 2002, when it removed that designation and thus throttled its own regulatory authority.

Comcast's reply, issued under the name of Executive Vice President David L. Cohen, is a model of disingenuous corp-speak. "We are on the record as agreeing with every point" the president made, Cohen said. "Free and open Internet. We agree -- and that is our practice." The same goes, he added, for "No blocking ... No throttling ... No paid prioritization." Cohen said, "We don't prioritize Internet traffic or have paid fast lanes, and have no plans to do so."

A couple of points here. First, it's true that Comcast hews to most of these principles -- at the moment. That's because it's legally required to do so until January 2018, as an explicit condition imposed by the FCC when it approved Comcast's purchase of NBCUniversal in 2011. 

Comcast is under no obligation to observe those principles once the deadline passes. Moreover, empirical evidence exists that complying with net neutrality isn't in Comcast's DNA. As we've reported in the past, Comcast's pre-2011 record was one of flouting the public interest -- and net-neutrality principles -- in its headlong quest for influence and profit.

For example, Comcast was discovered to be throttling a competing online video service in 2007, and then misleading the FCC about its reasons for doing so. Later, when the FCC launched an initiative to impose net-neutrality standards on ISPs, Comcast sued in federal court to overturn the regulations -- and won.

As for its claim that it doesn't have paid fast lanes, what would you call the deal it struck with Netflix just this past February, which guaranteed Netflix smooth streaming for its customers over the Comcast network ... for a fee?

Comcast acknowledged Tuesday that it has "one important technical legal difference of opinion" with the president: his call for Title II reclassification. Yet this is not a technical legal issue, but a key to adequate regulation of Comcast's behavior.

The cable firm prefers to be regulated under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It says that a federal court has found that Section 706 gives the FCC "more than ample authority" to impose net-neutrality rules, but that's extremely misleading.

The federal appeals court for the D.C. Circuit, ruling last January in a case brought by Verizon, acknowledged that the FCC had significantly less authority to regulate ISPs under Section 706 than under Title II. In fact, it threw out the FCC's net-neutrality regulations in part because they conflicted with the 2002 decision to take ISP services out of the Title II common carrier category.

Comcast makes much out of the billions it says it invests in infrastructure -- $6.6 billion last year -- and asserts that this investment may disappear if it's regulated as a common carrier. What it doesn't say is that even though it's the nation's biggest ISP, its investment ranks far below that of rival ISPs AT&T ($21 billion) and Verizon ($15 billion).

Moreover, this spending plainly isn't enough to give all its customers world-class service. Comcast's Cohen asserted, in the immediate aftermath of President Obama's statement, that the firm was "the first to roll out America's fastest broadband speeds across the country."

This claim is cleverly narrow. Even if Comcast's speeds were the fastest in the country -- and they're not -- as measured against global standards they stink. A New America Foundation survey of global speeds and costs in 2013 found the fastest Comcast speeds in San Francisco, where customers could download content from the Internet at 105 megabits per second, at a price of $114.95 a month. Compare that to Seoul and Tokyo, where customers get 1,000 Mbps for the equivalent of less than $34. 

Comcast's U.S. rivals don't do much better. New America found that Verizon fiber customers in New York City can get 500-Mbps downloads, if they pay $300 a month. The best speed in the country is delivered by Google Fiber, which offers 1,000 Mbps for $70. But that service is only available in Kansas City currently, and won't be rolled out nationally.

This is the harvest of broadband deregulation--call it non-regulation--in the U.S. New America observed that "the most affordable and fast connections are available in markets where consumers can choose between at least three competitive service providers"; but that nirvana exists only for 9% of Americans. 

Interestingly, one community that does offer vigorous competition is San Francisco, which may explain why New America found Comcast service there to be less bad than elsewhere. (It also may explain why Comcast subjected Ryan Block, a Bay Area Comcast customer trying to switch, to one of the worst customer service calls ever.) Comcast's proposed merger with Time Warner Cable would only enhance its competitive position, which means it's likely to result in an even less aggressive rollout of top speeds, and higher prices.

It's remarkable that Comcast and its fellow ISPs find this awful level of service to be something worth bragging about, and even assert that the lack of regulation that brought us to this dismal result should be a point of pride for Americans. 

"This is not game playing or sophistry on our part," Comcast stated Tuesday of its purported devotion to network neutrality. As a rule of thumb, one should assume that when a big corporation feels the need to provide such assurance, the truth is exactly the opposite.

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