Why Comcast’s Stream TV service could affect the Internet’s future

Stream TV, Comcast's new video streaming service, won't be constrained by regular data speeds or monthly data caps – which could have big effects on 'net neutrality' and the Internet itself.

Gene J. Puskar/AP/File
Comcast's new video service, Stream TV, doesn't count against customer's data caps. Here, a Comcast truck is seen in Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania.

On Thursday, Comcast launched Stream TV, a new service aimed at cable cord cutters in its Boston and Chicago markets. For $15 per month, Stream TV lets Comcast customers watch network TV and local channels without needing a separate cable box and service, similar to streaming-only services offered by other cable companies.

Why are "net neutrality" advocates up in arms about the service? Stream TV is significant for another reason: Comcast’s policy regarding the service and data caps could weigh on the fundamental principles that govern the Internet.

At issue is the principle of non-discrimination, which says that all Internet traffic, regardless of its source, should be treated equally. Net neutrality advocates say non-discrimination is crucial to making sure that the Internet doesn’t get split in two “lanes”: a fast lane for companies who can pay Internet providers to prioritize their traffic, and a slow lane for everyone else. In practice, this also means that Internet providers can’t prioritize their own services to give them an advantage over everyone else’s.

But Stream TV is different, Comcast says, because it doesn’t count as Internet traffic. “Stream TV is a cable streaming service delivered over Comcast's cable system, not over the Internet,” the company states in an FAQ. The service won’t count toward customers’ monthly data caps in cities where those caps are active, which means you can watch all the Stream TV you want without blowing through your data – but you can only watch a certain amount of Netflix or YouTube before hitting your monthly limit.

Ars Technica reports that Stream TV also won’t be constrained by data speed tiers, so video will be delivered at full speed even when customers are using their data connection for other services at the same time.

Comcast’s critics say this practice, known in some parts of the world as “zero rating,” violates net neutrality because it gives Stream TV an unfair advantage over competing video services. But Comcast says Stream TV amounts to a regular cable service (which doesn’t count as Internet traffic), just delivered using a different protocol.

The Federal Communications Commission forbade Comcast from treating its own Internet traffic differently from that of competitors as part of a 2011 agreement, but that rule wouldn’t apply here if Stream TV traffic is judged to be totally separate from the public Internet.

The FCC says it will examine zero-rating policies on a case-by-case basis to see whether they amount to an “unreasonable interference” to people’s Internet use. The net neutrality rules enacted earlier this year in the US apply only to the public Internet, not to special “services that do not travel over broadband Internet access service.” If the FCC decides to investigate Comcast’s policy, it may conclude that the company needs to apply its data caps to Stream TV and other traffic alike – or it might decide that cable-over-Internet services are indeed separate, and can be treated differently.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.