Comcast's CEO Defends Making Netflix Pay, As FCC Promises to Look Into It
In the wake of news that the Federal Communications Commission had decided to look into the issue of paid peering on the internet, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts took the stage at Re/code's Code Conference Wednesday. Doing his best to talk about anything but broadband, Roberts was forced to give his opinion about the issue.
Interconnection, also known as peering, on the internet has gotten public attention after slow-downs of Netflix traffic forced the streaming company to pay Comcast and Verizon for direct connections to their networks. This was necessary because the internet is not one single network; it's a collection of interconnected networks, and not all connections are the same quality.
Netflix, nonetheless, has balked at the paid peering agreements it had to make, even creating a new term "strong net neutrality" to describe its proposed rules that would ban ISPs demanding money for direct connection and going to the FCC with its complaints. Other companies that form the backbone of the internet, like Level 3, have similarly aired complaints about the quality of connections to ISPs like Comcast.
FCC To Look Into Interconnection, but No Plans Yet
This week, Ruth Milkman, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's chief of staff, appeared at the Progressive Policy Institute to give a talk on the subject, "Should the FCC Serve as Internet Traffic Cop?" (via Ars Technica). Milkman spoke about the interconnection problem, both recent and in the past, and made it clear that the FCC was looking into the issue. The agency is also now famously taking comments on a new version of the Open Internet rules that critics (including yours truly) have said will destroy net neutrality.
But when it comes to network interconnections, Milkman signaled that the FCC has a limit to its general, controversially hands-off approach: the FCC will not allow companies that try to block or degrade interconnections. "Disconnected networks do not serve the public interest," said Milkman. She also described how the FCC has a history of regulating interconnections of previous networks, such as landline telephones and wireless, and how in a broader sense, the government's mandated interconnections of the railroads was essential to the growth of the country.
However, Milkman stopped short of forecasting any actual action by the FCC, for now. With some very public interconnection disputes as a backdrop, Milkman said, "the FCC has received a lot of points of view on the manner in which the current traffic exchange regimes are or are not working."
"One question might be this: are these disputes just business negotiations that can be resolved adequately in the marketplace? Or are they a warning sign of a breakdown of a functioning marketplace of interconnection and traffic exchange on the internet? We at the FCC don't know the answer, but we know we need to learn more about how the marketplace is or is not functioning."
Comcast CEO: Too Bad, Pay the Postmaster
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts appeared at Re/code's Code Conference (via GigaOm) to seemingly talk as little about broadband as possible. However, forced by Re/code's hosts Walk Mossberg and Kara Swisher (and the audience), Roberts did have some typically "Comcastian" opinions on the matter.
Regarding the paid peering agreement that Netflix begrudgingly entered into, Roberts said, "[Netflix has] changed how they chose to manage -- their choice, not ours -- to take that massive volume [to the consumer]."
"They used to send DVDs by postage... and they used to pay three-quarters of a billion dollars in postag. So they would like it all to be free," Roberts said referring to the fact that Netflix now streams over the internet.
Besides mirroring part of the famously muddled "series of tubes" argument that the late Sen. Ted Stevens made against net neutrality in 2006, Roberts' explanation of Comcast's paid peering equated the company with the postal service — not an analogy one wants to make when it comes to quality of service, and also one that belies Comcast's arguments that it needs to merge with Time Warner Cable to survive.
"I don't blame them for that," continued Roberts, "I would like to not have to pay for cable boxes, but every company pays something to get to the internet."
The point that net neutrality advocates — some of whom are now looking at interconnection as an emerging 21st century net neutrality issue — might make is that, yes, everyone has to pay to get to the internet, but no one should have to pay twice.
Subscribe to Latin Post!
Sign up for our free newsletter for the Latest coverage!