Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings came out swinging on Sunday in a publicly available Facebook post that scolded Comcast for imposing a data cap on services it doesn't provide to the customer:
"Comcast [is] no longer following net neutrality principles. Comcast should apply caps equally, or not at all. I spent the weekend enjoying four good Internet video apps on my Xbox: Netflix, HBO GO, Xfinity and Hulu. When I watch video on my Xbox from three of these four apps, it counts against my Comcast Internet cap. When I watch through Comcast’s Xfinity app, however, it does not count against my Comcast Internet cap. For example, if I watch last night’s SNL episode on my Xbox through the Hulu app, it eats up about one gigabyte of my cap, but if I watch that same episode through the Xfinity Xbox app, it doesn’t use up my cap at all. The same device, the same IP address, the same WiFi, the same Internet connection, but totally different cap treatment. In what way is this neutral?"
Net neutrality has been a thorny issue for data providers for years, with the consumer side insisting that ISPs have a duty not to fix prices, and ISPs countering that they shouldn't have to support their competition. There has been plenty of proposed legislation on the issue but none that officially sanctions either principle. For now, data providers pay lip service to net neutrality while trying to find ways around it, and consumers (and publishers like Hastings) ferret out examples of what they perceive as malfeasance.
If the war was between consumers and multibillion dollar companies like Comcast, it would likely be a short-lived conflict. But Hastings, Time Warner (which owns HBO) and Hulu may represent a large enough consortium of content providers to give MSOs a fight.
That's not to say that the content publishers are always going to be on the side of the consumer. In 2010, Fox briefly blocked all Cablevision subscribers from Hulu and the television giant's websites, which hosted its shows, during a standoff between the two companies over retransmission consent—the fee paid by operators to broadcasters to carry their signal.
Yes, retrans is also mixed up in all this.
It's a complicated battle over who has the right to broadcast what, and where, but with Hastings' shot across the bow, further scrutiny of the NBCU/Comcast merger in the offing, and the retrans wars winding down, companies that provide both cable and Internet access are likely to be at ground zero in the coming months.