Boston Is Comcast Country

By Jamie Bologna
BU News Service

Comcast has been making headlines lately – first, for announcing its plans to purchase Time Warner Cable for $45 billion and then for announcing it had struck a deal with Netflix to better handle streaming traffic.

Both news stories come against the backdrop of January’s court ruling striking down the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) open access Internet rules, effectively ending the policy of net neutrality.

While championed as “the Magna Carta of the web,” net neutrality—the concept that all Internet traffic should be treated equally—might not be all it’s cracked up to be.

A Comcast Internet truck, 2008. (Flickr/Dave Winer)
A Comcast Internet truck, 2008. (Flickr/Dave Winer)

According to T. Barton Carter, a professor of communication and law at Boston University, all the coverage of the end of net neutrality hides the real concern—we have legal and regulatory system that hasn’t caught up with the technology of today.

“The much bigger problem is we’re regulating 21st-century communications with 20th century regulation and under 20th century law,” Carter said in an interview. “We’re still operating under the Telecom Act of 1996, think about things that we have today that didn’t exist then.”

He said the Netflix-Comcast deal came about because users of the video streaming service on Verizon and other service providers had seen a degradation of service and speeds. The latest season of House of Cards—the popular Netflix original series—was slated to hit the site and Netflix didn’t want their subscribers to get stuck with a loading screen.

But Carter explained that the FCC’s open Internet rules wouldn’t have prohibited the Netflix-Comcast peering agreement, and that Comcast is required to adhere to net neutrality rules until 2018, as part of their merger agreement with NBC-Universal in 2011.

“This is what I mean when I say net neutrality wouldn’t necessarily address the issues,” Carter said.

“Netflix and other streaming video products compete with Comcast or Time Warner’s own products and video-on-demand programming,” Carter said. “They’re trying to maintain a 20th century business model, they’re worried about cord cutters, and the reality is, we’re moving in that direction.”

If allowed to proceed, the Comcast-Time Warner deal would combine the first largest and the second largest cable providers into one company. Cable providers rank near the bottom in customer satisfaction surveys.

“Anytime consolidation occurs, ‘oh efficiencies are going to be better,’” explained Carter. “Generally speaking, the more centralized things are, the less innovation there is. Competition breeds innovation and by obvious analogy lowering competition hinders innovation.”

In an op-ed last week in the Boston Globe, Harvard Law visiting professor Susan Crawford lamented the lack of competition and, by extension, the lack of innovation in the Boston area.

“To be the place where the jobs of the future are born,” Crawford writes, “Boston needs to ensure that all its businesses and homes are connected to wholesale high-capacity, fiber lines that allow for competitive, inexpensive, and unlimited Internet communications.”

Below is an interactive map, showing the various cable providers available in the Boston area.

View Cable Internet Providers in the Boston Area in a larger map

On the streets of Boston, it seems some people want more competition and choices in their high-speed Internet access.

“I actually think big companies tend to be worse,” said Brookline resident Richard Duran of the proposed Comcast-Time Warner merger. Duran said he used to be a Comcast customer, but left for DirecTV and Verizon DSL. “I need a company that’s going to work with me and for me, you want my money, you’re going to have to give me what I want,” he added.

Natalie Marchand and her boyfriend Eric moved to Boston from Manhattan, where they used to be Time Warner customers. In Boston, they have Internet from Comcast.

“I’d love it if there was provider that just offered me really good Internet prices, that didn’t try to get me to buy television and phone service, but just provided really fast Internet service,” said Marchand. “Time Warner had a real monopoly in Manhattan and there was nothing you can do about it, there’s no body else in the city.”

In the city of Boston, Comcast and RCN offer broadband Internet service.

“I’m from Europe, and this is a third world country as far as Internet is concerned,” said Eric, who originally came to the United States from Portugal. “It’s so expensive and the quality of service is not good at all.”