The Internet at Risk: A Return to the Ma Bell Era

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].

[ Yes, the carriers are robber barons, but unlimited data usage is equally unrealistic. Here's a plan to get better wireless data service for all. | Get the key tech news of the day; sign up for InfoWorld's Tech Headlines Wrap-Up newsletter. ]

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.

It's well known that Netflix downloads suck up a huge amount of bandwidth, as much as 20 percent of the country's total bandwidth consumption during peak periods. In turn, it's not altogether unreasonable for Comcast to expect some compensation -- but that's the very narrowest view of the dispute. In a larger sense, the real issue is the lack of competition in the broadband market. If Level 3 didn't pay and was cut off, the big losers would be Comcast customers who could no longer access programming they want and have paid for. (It's worth noting that Comcast already competes with Netflix via its Xfinity service, so there was some incentive to lean on Level 3 beyond the peering issue.)

In a competitive market, they could simply say good-bye to Comcast and sign up with a provider willing to give them the content they want. But in most parts of the country, consumers have almost no choice. If they have one cable company and one telco, that's often the extent of the market. In rural areas, there's often just one provider.

Bad as this situation is, it will get exponentially worse if Comcast owns NBC and becomes one of the dominant content providers in the country, as well as one of the major Internet service providers. Once Comcast has a vested interest in moving its own content to customers, the temptation to favor its traffic over that of its competitors will be huge. Imagine CNN's Web traffic being slowed while that of MSNBC is speeded up. MSNBC of course is partly owned by Microsoft, so perhaps Mac, Android, iOS, and Linux users would also find themselves "nonpreferred" users.

On the business/IT side, the additional danger is that Comcast would treat different types of applications differently. It could happen if the FCC doesn't approve rules guaranteeing traffic be treated equally.

Comcast as Ma Bell: No Zoom modem today, maybe no thin clients or iPads later

Unlike the Level 3 issue, Comcast's dispute with Zoom seems clear-cut. Attaching nonharmful devices to the network is the right of consumers and businesses. Comcast would, of course, prefer to make a huge profit by renting cable modems to consumers instead of allowing them to purchase one from a third party.

Zoom is a reputable company; there's no reason to suppose its modems would be any worse than Comcast's. However, Comcast sees it differently, and for the record, here's the company's position:

Comcast wants to make sure devices our customers purchase at retail will work well and are safe, and we have not asked Zoom to submit to testing that is any different than what we ask of every other cable modem manufacturer we work with. We even offered to let Zoom do the safety testing at their own Chinese manufacturing plants, but they refused this offer. As Zoom decided not to take advantage of the courtesy we offered to simplify testing, we will be more than glad to explain to the FCC as we have already explained to Zoom how their refusal to permit any performance or safety testing of its device will harm consumers.

I don't believe it.

"Both the Zoom and Level 3 issues are examples of Comcast using its unique power in the marketplace to disadvantage competitive service, whether its from independent content providers or independent device makers," said Aparna Sridhar, policy counsel for Free Press, a nonprofit pro-Net neutrality advocacy group.

She's exactly right. Comcast needs to be stopped. Otherwise, it will extend its control over what you and your employees may use to more than cable modems. You may find your thin clients, VPN-equipped PCs, VoIP devices, or iPads one day disallowed ostensibly because they cause harm but in reality because their use isn't to Comcast's own financial benefit.

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Post them here so that all our readers can share them, or reach me at Follow me on Twitter at BSnyderSF.

This article, "The Internet at risk: A return to the Ma Bell era," was originally published by Read more of Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog and follow the latest technology business developments at


Subscribe to the Best of PCWorld Newsletter