The Case Against Time Warner-Comcast Just Got Stronger

Tom's Guide / Paul Wagenseil
The Case Against Time Warner-Comcast Just Got Stronger

A senior executive at a top-tier Internet connectivity company is accusing broadband Internet service providers (ISPs) of intentionally slowing traffic speeds on their own networks.

In doing so, he's made perhaps the best argument yet in favor of net neutrality and against the pending Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, and also explained why your Netflix streaming-video connection often chokes.

MORE: What Is Net Neutrality?

The broadband ISPs "are deliberately harming the service they deliver to their paying customers. They are not allowing us to fulfil [sic] the requests their customers make for content," wrote Mark Taylor, vice president of content and media at Level 3 Communications, in a blog post yesterday (May 5) entitled "Observations of an Internet Middleman."

Level 3 is perhaps the most important Internet company you've never heard of. It is a top "backbone" provider, ensuring fast, fat connections among the local networks of dozens of other Internet-related companies across the world. Level 3 carries tremendous authority on Internet traffic matters, and for it to accuse consumer-level ISPs of throttling traffic is a bit like God, or at least the federal government, speaking.

However, Level 3 does not provide the "last mile" connection between end users and the Internet. That's where broadband ISPs come in. No matter how fast Level 3's own wires are, broadband consumers will only see speeds as fast as their broadband ISPs will allow — and Taylor says they're not allowing much.

He bases his assertions on the fact that of Level 3's 51 direct interconnections around the world with other autonomous networks — big chunks of the Internet controlled by large companies — six are permanently at peak capacity, resulting in traffic congestion, lost data and slower speeds.

Taylor said the congestion could easily be relieved if the operators of the six autonomous networks, which are all broadband ISPs — five in the United States and one in Europe — would upgrade their equipment. But he said they have chosen not to do so.

This is "congestion that is permanent, has been in place for well over a year and where our peer refuses to augment capacity," he wrote. "All six are large broadband consumer networks with a dominant or exclusive market share in their local market."

He didn't call the companies out by name, but added that the American ones "also happen to rank dead last in customer satisfaction across all industries in the U.S.," according to last year's American Customer Satisfaction Index (ASCI) report.

The companies that came in last in that report are, in order of least satisfaction: Comcast, Time Warner Cable, CenturyLink, Charter Communications, AT&T U-Verse and Cox Communications. None has major European operations, implying that at least one is not among Taylor's five offenders.

Playing chicken with the Internet

Taylor's post was a follow-up to an equally scathing March 18 blog post by Level 3 General Counsel (i.e., top lawyer) Michael Mooney entitled "'Chicken': A Game Played as a Child and by some ISPs with the Internet."

Mooney accused American broadband ISPs of slowing down their "last mile" connections in order to extort fees from heavy content providers such as Netflix.

"Some ISPs ... have refused to augment [upgrade] their networks UNLESS the content providers they connect to agree to pay them to do so," Mooney wrote. "These ISPs simply view these arbitrary tolls as new sources of revenue for their last-mile-bottleneck monopolies, or as a way to unfairly discriminate against content that competes with the content the ISPs themselves supply."

These ISPs "try to strong-arm the content providers into paying by playing a game of 'chicken' with the Internet," he added. "These ISPs break the Internet by refusing to increase the size of their networks unless their tolls are paid."

Such games of "chicken" are exactly what upsets supporters of net neutrality, the doctrine that all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally by all carriers. It's more evidence that, in the wake of a January court decision that struck down the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) implementation of net neutrality, broadband ISPs are already differentiating among content providers, such as by making Netflix pay them in order to guarantee service.

Most of the large broadband ISPs in the U.S. are cable-television companies that lucked into the broadband ISP market by happening to have last-mile infrastructure already in place.

In the cable-TV business, service providers make money on both ends, collecting fees both from cable-TV content providers and end-use consumers — and the cable companies that double as ISPs don't see why broadband Internet service should be treated any differently.

MORE: Best Shows on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and More

The FCC, which is gingerly accepting some erosion of net neutrality, could simply impose net neutrality upon last-mile broadband providers by reclassifying broadband as a "common carrier," as regular telephone service and DSL Internet service already are. Yet the FCC and President Barack Obama, who has pledged support for net neutrality, may lack the political support to push such a regulatory change through Congress.

The pending merger of the two largest cable-TV providers in the U.S., Comcast and Time Warner Cable, — which also happen to be the two largest broadband ISPs — has been opposed by many proponents of net neutrality, including Level 3 itself.

Opponents of the merger argue it would give Comcast a near-monopoly over broadband Internet connections in the United States, and that federal regulators should block the merger on antitrust grounds. The FCC and the Department of Justice will both have to approve the proposed merger.

A free-market end to broadband monopolies

The solution to the problem of deliberately throttled broadband service may be more competition. Taylor noted that "in countries or markets where consumers have multiple broadband choices (like the UK), there are no congested peers." 

The United Kingdom and some other European countries regulate broadband as a common carrier, meaning that several ISPs are allowed to offer service over the same high-speed last-mile lines. In those countries, consumer broadband service is both cheaper and faster than it is in the U.S.

In contrast, the cable-company-controlled U.S. broadband ISP market is "even less competitive than suscription TV service" and "there is little incentive to improve service," last year's ASCI report noted. "Dissatisfied customers have a difficult time leaving their provider for an alternative supplier."

The authors of the ASCI report hoped that non-cable-TV broadband suppliers such as Google's Google Fiber service may result in more competition.

"Options such as Google Fiber may eventually force current ISP providers to step up their customer service," the report said. "At present, however, Google's promise of super-fast, reliable fiber-optic Internet service is still just a promise — implemented for early testing in only a few locations."

Other alternative broadband suppliers include municipal broadband networks, which already exist in several small cities. Perhaps the best-known is the one in Chattanooga, Tennessee. But even in that instance, the city of Chattanooga had to fight the cable companies in court before it could build out its own broadband network.

Follow Paul Wagenseil at @snd_wagenseil. Follow Tom's Guide at @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.

Copyright 2014 Toms Guides , a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.