Comcast’s Non-Denial Denial On Traffic Prioritization And Net Neutrality

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Ever since Comcast unveiled its VOD service on the Xbox, it’s come under criticism from those who believe the service violates the spirit of net neutrality, not to mention also violating some of the FCC’s conditions on its big NBC Universal deal from last year. After weeks of staying out of the discussion, the top cable provider in the U.S. explained in a blog post how the content was being delivered within a subscriber’s home.

Comcast had always maintained that the VOD streams were being delivered through its own internal CDN architecture and not over the broader Internet, but the latest blog post gives a little more detail about how those streams get delivered over the last mile. From the post:

“Specifically, we provision a separate, additional bandwidth flow into the home for the use of this service — above and beyond, and distinct from, the bandwidth a customer has for his or her regular Internet access service.”

In short, Comcast is provisioning whatever traffic it’s using to deliver Xbox video separately from whatever traffic is being used by a customer’s Internet connection. So if you pay for a 25 Mb/s broadband connection, for instance, Comcast isn’t sending its Xbox VOD streams through that pipe. Instead, it’s provisioning a whole different connection that handles only the Xbox VOD service.

That’s why VOD streams that go directly to the Xbox don’t count against Comcast’s 250 GB broadband cap, while streams from its iPad app, XfinityTV.com website, or those of NBC.com or other NBC Universal properties do count toward the cap. It’s also why, when someone like Bryan Berg floods his Internet connection with synthetic traffic, the Xbox Xfinity VOD stream continues unabated — because it’s not riding on the same pipe as usual Internet traffic.

Of course, that doesn’t really answer the question about whether it’s prioritizing its traffic, or if its streams are being delivered in a non-neutral fashion.

In the sense that Xbox VOD streams are being sent over a whole separate pipe from regular Internet traffic, of course it’s prioritized and of course it’s not neutral — not only does it not count toward bandwidth caps, but it also isn’t subject to all the vagaries of best-effort Internet streaming, including all the hiccups, jitter, buffering and the like.

But that’s the entire point, according to Comcast: This isn’t an Internet video service at all, but a cable TV service that just happens to be delivered via IP. In that sense, it’s no different from similar services being delivered by Verizon and AT&T, both of which provision streams for their IPTV services that are separate from the general broadband traffic that they carry.

That’ll provide little solace to online video publishers and distributors who are streamed over the broader Internet and do actually count against Comcast’s caps. But for policy wonks at the FCC and in Congress, this is probably as good of an answer as any as to why Comcast isn’t discriminating against the traffic of others.

[Image via Flickr/Kevin Burkett]