So much for the notion that Comcast bought Netflix's silence on net neutrality rules for at least the next year by striking a favorable peering deal with the online video king.
Defying industry speculation that his company would now give Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) a pass on net neutrality until its deal Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) was approved, Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX) CEO Reed Hastings is pushing for tighter net neutrality rules to protect US Internet video providers.
In a blog post on the Netflix website late last week, Hastings lashed out at the "big ISPs" that he claims charge "tolls" for direct interconnections with their broadband networks. He also made a passionate case for "stronger" neutrality rules that would keep broadband providers from charging the kind of interconnection fees that Netflix recently agreed to pay Comcast for the next few years. (See Comcast-Netflix Peering Deal: A Game-Changer? and Comcast-Netflix: It's Really All About TWC.)
In his lengthy post, Hastings, who had said little on the net neutrality subject before, contended that the US needs net neutrality rules stringent enough that "ISPs such as AT&T and Comcast don't restrict, influence or otherwise meddle with the choices consumers make."
Although the "traditional form of net neutrality" enacted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) but overturned by the federal courts is "important," he said, it's "insufficient" and must be strengthened. (See The Dangerous Reaction to Netflix-Comcast.)
"This weak net neutrality isn't enough to protect an open, competitive Internet; a stronger net neutrality is required," Hastings asserted. Further, he said, a strong net neutrality policy "prevents ISPs from charging a toll for interconnection to services like Netflix, YouTube, or Skype, or intermediaries such as Cogent, Akamai, or Level 3, to deliver the services and data requested by ISP residential subscribers. Instead, they must provide sufficient access to their networks without charge."
Seemingly damning Comcast with faint praise, Hastings termed the giant MSO "an industry leader in supporting weak net neutrality." He called on Comcast to "support strong net neutrality as well."
Hastings also contrasted Comcast's peering payment policy with such other major US MSOs as Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC), which don't charge a fee for such links. He noted that Cablevision already practices strong net neutrality by providing direct interconnection for no fee, enabling its high-speed data subscribers to enjoy "outstanding quality" for Netflix and other online video streaming services.
"But on other big ISPs, due to a lack of sufficient interconnectivity, Netflix performance has been constrained, subjecting consumers who pay a lot of money for high-speed Internet to high buffering rates, long wait times, and poor video quality," he wrote.
Although he didn't name those big ISPs in his post, an accompanying graph from a Wall Street Journal article showed how Netflix's prime-time streaming performance has declined on Comcast, Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ)'s FiOS, Time Warner Cable, and AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) U-verse networks in recent months.
In a sharp written response to Hastings' post, Comcast defended its peering policies and rejected Hastings' argument. The MSO noted that, unlike every other ISP in the nation, it carries out the net neutrality rules that the FCC enacted. But Comcast did not note that, unlike every other ISP in the country, it has to do that, due to the conditions imposed upon it when federal regulators approved its purchase of NBC Universal .
"There has been no company that has had a stronger commitment to openness of the Internet than Comcast," said Comcast EVP David Cohen in the statement. "We supported the FCC's Open Internet rules because they struck the appropriate balance between consumer protection and reasonable network management rights for ISPs."
Pointing out that the Open Internet rules "never were designed to deal with peering and Internet interconnection," Cohen also argued that online video providers like Netflix "have always paid for their interconnection to the Internet and have always had ample options to ensure that their customers receive an optimal performance through all ISPs at a fair price." He said the peering deal negotiated by Comcast and Netflix "demonstrates the effectiveness of the market as a mechanism to deal with these matters."
In his post, Hastings said Netflix will "reluctantly," in some cases, "pay the toll to the powerful ISPs to protect our consumer experience," at least in the short term, because of their clout and reach. But he made it clear that his company would not go quietly into the night, warning that Netflix "will continue to fight for the Internet the world needs and deserves."
— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading