Comcast center. (Photo: nichcollins / Flickr)
Netflix partner Level 3 Communications spoke out against Comcast on Monday, accusing the company of charging a fee for delivering streaming video to Netflix customers and threatening to block its services otherwise – a move that exemplifies corporate abuse and jeopardizes the open Internet, Level 3 chief legal officer Thomas Stortz said.
"By taking this action, Comcast is effectively putting up a toll booth at the borders of its broadband Internet access network, enabling it to unilaterally decide how much to charge for content which competes with its own cable TV and Xfinity delivered content," Stortz said in a statement. "Comcast demonstrates the risk of a 'closed' Internet, where a retail broadband Internet access provider decides whether and how their subscribers interact with content."
The dispute follows a rising political debate over the importance of network neutrality. After Congress was unable to pass bipartisan legislation this year to prevent broadband providers from interfering with traffic, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) inherited the challenge and is poised to make decisions on the issue at its December 21 open meeting.
The FCC is also completing its review of an impending Comcast-NBC merger. According to The New York Times, this could give the FCC an opportunity to attach a condition preventing Comcast from interfering with its competitors' Internet traffic.
Comcast senior vice president of external affairs Joseph Waz posted the company's letter to the FCC regarding its conflict with Level 3, calling it "nothing but a good old-fashioned commercial peering dispute … Despite Level 3's complaints, Comcast is neither resisting carrying Internet video traffic nor imposing new 'tolls' on Internet video traffic."
Waz's letter also claims that Level 3 attempted to gain advantage for its expanding content delivery network (CDN) by asking Comcast to pay a fee for the traffic Level 3 brought in. Waz stated, "What Level 3 is suddenly pushing – a 'new theory' of peering – would throw the traditional, 'balanced traffic' peering rulebook out the window, give Level 3 an unfair cost advantage over its competitors, and shift all costs from Level 3 and its content customers onto Comcast and its high-speed Internet customers."
FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said he was looking into Level 3's allegations against Comcast as consumer watchdog groups like Free Press and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee set up online petitions for Internet users to sign in support of net neutrality. Representative Maxine Waters (D-California) also joined the ranks on Tuesday, urging Genachowski to "carefully review these new allegations … and ensure that if the Comcast-NBC combination is approved, it is conditioned upon substantive commitments that will promote media diversity, competition, and consumer protections."
But the dispute didn't stop with Level 3. Wireless modem manufacturer Zoom Telephonics also filed a complaint against Comcast on Monday, stating that Comcast violated FCC regulations by creating an equipment certification program preventing consumers from using third-party modems to connect to Comcast's network. The complaint alleges that Comcast's "testing regime" entails costly and irrelevant requirements that restrict the availability of retail cable modems and force subscribers to rent necessary equipment directly from Comcast.
Zoom president and CEO Frank Manning said in a statement, "Comcast is clearly violating FCC rules designed to encourage an open, competitive market for cable modems at retail. This is especially dangerous given Comcast's position as the largest provider by far of cable modem service in the US. We cannot allow Comcast to use its certification process as a way to unfairly restrict consumer choice in cable modems."
Comcast has not responded to Zoom's complaint.