The Internet at risk: A return to the Ma Bell era

Comcast's bullying of Level 3 and Zoom Telephonics reveals the lack of broadband competition that threatens the Internet

Back in the bad old days of Ma Bell's ascendancy, you couldn't attach anything to the monopoly's telephone network without express permission: not an answering machine, not an extension, not nothin'. Those days are long gone -- unless you or your users connect to the Internet via Comcast, the giant cable network that delivers television and broadband connectivity to millions of customers.

In a stunning display of arrogance, Comcast is stopping Zoom Telephonics from providing cable modems to its subscribers by imposing a ridiculous set of conditions. How ridiculous? In addition to meeting unrealistic standards about heat resistance and packaging, Zoom would be forced to pay business-class airfare and hotel accommodations for Comcast employees who journey to Asia to approve Zoom's modems, according to a complaint filed with the FCC [PDF].

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There's no mystery about why Comcast wants to stop its customers from buying Zoom cable modems. Comcast customers normally rent cable modems for $5 a month; a Zoom modem costs $55 to $75. The math isn't hard.

Both consumers and IT have a stake in this one. The principle of allowing "non-harmful" devices to be connected to the network has been settled law since the Supreme Court's Carterfone ruling of 1968. Can you imagine how obnoxious it would be to have some bozo bandwidth provider declaring that the firewall you just installed on your network was "harmful" and you'd better buy one from them?

The Carterfone ruling was the first in a series of steps that ended the stranglehold that AT&T then had on telecommunications, slowing innovation to a crawl. Comcast and the rest of the big cable providers and telcos would like nothing better than to get some of that power back.

No Netflix for consumers -- and maybe no Web apps for employees
In case you've forgotten, Comcast is on the verge of completing its buyout of NBC. There are many reasons to hope the feds block that move, and this week illustrated a bunch. Bear with me a bit, and you'll see why this matters to IT, not just consumers.

Consider Comcast's beef with Level 3, and by extension, Netflix: Level 3, a huge backbone provider, recently struck a deal to deliver streaming movies for Netflix. Comcast then demanded that Level 3 pay it a recurring fee for delivering that content to Comcast subscribers. When Level 3 balked, Comcast threatened to cut the cord by blocking the content Level 3 was supplying to Comcast subscribers. Level 3 paid.

There's been quite the war of words over this skirmish, with Level 3 and consumer advocates claiming that the real issue here is Net neutrality, the principle that broadband providers may not discriminate against different types of traffic moving over the networks that carry the Internet. I've made no secret of my support for Net neutrality, but the Comcast/Level 3 fight is not about that principle. It's about who controls access to the Internet itself.

In the very narrowest sense, Comcast is probably right in its Level 3 fight: It's a commercial dispute over a peering agreement. In a peering agreement, backbone providers generally agree that they may move traffic over each other's network at no charge. Usually, the assumption is that the volume of traffic will be roughly equally on both sides. Comcast and Level 3 have such a peering agreement.

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