Level 3, a major data backbone company that provides the kind of fat pipes that a streaming company like Netflix needs to survive, asserted this week that Comcast was threatening them with choking off their subscribers from Level3 partners if they didn’t pony up a fee to make up for the massive bandwidth they use on a daily basis. While Level3 has temporarily agreed to pay the fees, they have filed a complaint with the FCC, who is scheduled to have hearings on Net Neutrality in December.
A victim of our overall crumbling infrastructure, the entire United States desperately needs an overhaul of our digital backbone, and we’re getting it, just not outside major metropolitan areas. The cost of laying fiber optic cable from coast to coast is enormous, and from an objective position, Comcast does have a bit of a point.
The bigger picture is far more complicated. The Internet is critical to how this entire nation operates on a daily basis, and that dependency is only going to grow as more and more of our lives move online. Keeping the pipes as free and clear as possible, without artificial barriers, is critical to the future financial health of this country, as well as protecting free speech (a provider could decide to block email and other traffic from a site campaigning against it from reaching its customers, for example). Comcast is in line currently to acquire NBC/Universal, and along with it Netflix’s potentially biggest rival, Hulu. In addition to a not-insignificant number of people dumping cable for streaming services, Comcast has little motivation, unless compelled by law, to enable its competition to do freely business with their customers. The good news is that this will probably be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and get the FCC to bring net neutrality into law. The bad news is that the likely compromise will be that cellular networks will become open season for exactly this kind of behavior, and that’s something that’s likely going to come back and bite us in the ass 10 years down the road.