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.