This week, Comcast, the largest provider of cable and internet in the country, started charging for broadband using a tiered data plan - much like wireless carriers currently do. This move is not likely to affect many people right now, but as The New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter tells Brooke, Comcast might be preparing its subscribers for the future of internet pricing.
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BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. Get ready to pay for your data usage. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but soon, [LAUGHTER] and for the rest of your life. Comcast, the nation’s largest cable operator and Internet provider and owner of NBC Universal decided this week to begin the process of preparing you psychologically.
Comcast has had infamous dustups with its Internet subscribers. In 2007 it was the subject of an FCC complaint that it was secretly throttling the bandwidth of heavy downloaders. After that fight was resolved, the company began to cap its users’ data usage to ensure that they wouldn’t download too much. But on Thursday, Comcast announced that it would lift the cap and instead begin charging users whose data use surpasses a certain amount, sort of like your cell phone’s data plan. The thing is only a very, very few of us are ever likely to exceed that amount. This is, for now, for most of us, an academic exercise. But Comcast is preparing the ground for us to think differently about the way things work. Brian Stelter reports on media for The New York Times. Welcome to the show.
BRIAN STELTER: Sure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: First of all, let me ask you, as goes Comcast, so goes –
- the rest of the industry?
BRIAN STELTER: That’s oftentimes true because it’s one of the largest providers of TV and Internet in the country. Other companies take their lead from Comcast, and Comcast often times sends signals about where they believe the industry’s going. In this case, they’re not quite first to say that we should be paying based on how much we consume. And, of course, it’s something that wireless companies already do. So by announcing this, I think Comcast is acting like AT&T and Verizon, which already charge you, based on how much data you're using on your cell phone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why is this a big deal?
BRIAN STELTER: Well, it’s a big deal because the foundation of all the services being created on the Internet is this broadband connection that we all have into our homes. All the Netflixes of the world, all the future Netflixes that are being invented now rely on this wired foundation that’s been built into the ground. A company like Comcast, I think what they’re trying to do is re-price and start to change consumers’ mindsets about how much broadband is worth. Already, Comcast lets you choose from a variety of speeds. You can pay more to have a faster connection. And I can imagine in the future having to choose both how fast the connection I want, as well as how much data I want to be able to use.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Some suggest that Comcast is making this change because they see which way the wind is blowing. People aren’t using cable very much. They’re making a lot more money off of their broadband Internet service, and that’s where they see the gravy train coming.
BRIAN STELTER: Cable companies like Comcast have been shedding cable subscribers for a while, even as they add broadband. That’s because there’s lots of pressure from satellite companies and telcos for all those cable subscribers. As cable continues to shrink, then we’re gonna see these companies that used to be called cable companies really be called Internet companies that just happen to serve up some TV on the side.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I mean, we’re always worried about the people who control the pipes. Is everybody gonna get a fair shake, is everybody gonna have the same access to information?
BRIAN STELTER: Mm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And a lot of people complain that Comcast is exempting its own services from its own cap.
BRIAN STELTER: There are questions about that because Comcast recently starting providing a service that’s a little bit like Netflix, via the Xbox, for its users. And that service is not counting against the monthly allotment of data. This is something that the critics of, of Comcast have worried about for a long time, the idea of discriminating against the public Internet and favoring this other private Internet that benefits Comcast. And, of course, because Comcast now controls NBC and a bunch of cable channels, that’s been on the radar screen of the FCC, as well as some public interest groups.
Comcast has said that what they’re doing with the Xbox data is the data’s not traveling over the public Internet and thus, its business relationship with Microsoft is exempt. But it makes a company like Netflix wonder, but why isn’t my data available to be distributed the same way. And so, Netflix has actually been the, the loudest opponent of this experiment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I thought it was interesting that Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen said it’s a matter of messaging way more than it’s a matter of capacity. This is a, a psychological move more than a [LAUGHS] business move, right?
BRIAN STELTER: You know, he has been saying that he was concerned that all of the cool new products they were announcing lately were being overshadowed by people wondering how is it gonna affect my data usage. But I would say that the wireless companies show us maybe what this future looks like. I do worry, on an almost daily basis, about not using too much of my AT&T data on my iPhone every month. That kind of reality is something that people are getting used to already on their wireless phones.
For other people, it might be texting, for other people, it might be the number of minutes they’re using to make phone calls. It’s so old-fashioned, the phone there. But either way, I think people are being trained to think about how much they’re consuming.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can we trust Comcast to play fair with its consumers? It doesn’t have the greatest reputation, either for transparency or for - service.
BRIAN STELTER: Comcast continues to be very closely watched, even by the standards of a media company, by consumer advocates and by public interest groups and by people that are naturally suspicious of these big media companies, and especially closely watched because it now controls a lot of content in the form of NBC Universal. The fact that the government is keeping a close eye since that merger, every step they take is very carefully planned by them. That doesn’t mean that they are necessarily trustworthy for a consumer. There are still a lot of people that are fed up with the long waits on the phone to reach a technician or the long waits at home or the high bills, but they’re not an outlier, in terms of other cable companies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So as long as they’re just as bad as the others, that’s okay.
BRIAN STELTER: Yeah, it’s something about a rising tide or maybe this is a falling tide.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is your phone more important to you?
BRIAN STELTER: Than my home Internet connection?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah.
BRIAN STELTER: It’s my lifeline in the most real sense of the word. If I have to leave home or if I’m anywhere outside of home, the phone is what goes with me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brian, thank you very much.
BRIAN STELTER: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brian Stelter is a media reporter for The New York Times.
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