Comcast CEO Brian Roberts may have come to San Francisco to show off a new service designed to make Comcast cable TV look and feel more like the internet. But he knew that the Silicon Valley press corps would be more interested in something else.
“Something like Title II, maybe?” he said, before launching into his extended demo of X1, the internet-based version of cable that Comcast is starting to roll out to US customers. Title II is a once-obscure section of a 1934 law that has become the center of the battle over the future of the internet and that elusive ideal known as net neutrality.
On Monday, the White House released a statement in which President Obama expressed support for reclassifying broadband as a common carrier under Title II, making internet access more like long distance or mobile phone service. In the president’s view, reclassification is what’s needed to ensure net neutrality—an open internet where all traffic is treated equally. But Comcast sees things a little differently.
Roberts believes the debate has been framed in the wrong way. People assume that if you’re for net neutrality, you’re also Title II, he says. But he sees them a very separate things. Comcast believes in net neutrality, but not in Title II, he says, arguing that Title II would slow the expansion of the internet.
For the major broadband providers, the president’s statement was a gauntlet thrown, a direct challenge to their claims that they can be trusted on their own not to demand payment for preferential treatment on their networks. Net neutrality advocates don’t trust them at all, arguing that without strong protections against fast lanes and metered traffic, smaller online players will get pushed aside—and, with them, competition and innovation. Roberts’ and Comcast’s task is to persuade the public otherwise, that the company does support an open internet and doesn’t need to have its broadband service reclassified under Title II to ensure that support.
To make its case, Comcast, the country’s biggest media company, pretty much has just one argument it can make: that the status quo is working out fine. “We’ve had 20 years of a set of rules that have built, I think, this wonderful world that we all enjoy,” Roberts said.
The More Things Change
This is not to say that Comcast doesn’t claim to support any new rules at all. The company says it backs the FCC creating “new, strong Open Internet rules” that include no blocking, throttling, or “paid prioritization” of traffic. But in voicing that support, Comcast isn’t really calling for any kind of change, at least in its own practices, because it says it’s already doing all of those things.
Netflix may disagree, but no one is doubting that a reclassification under Title II would represent a fundamental change in how the government oversees Comcast’s business. And the problem with that change, in Roberts’ view, is that it could curtail the steady expansion of internet infrastructure into which companies like his are investing billions of dollars.
“We want to have those open internet rules. We want them to be enforceable. But we don’t want to discourage investing,” Roberts said. “We can’t find anything that Title II does to encourage investing.”
Roberts didn’t go so far as AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson did on Wednesday. In a statement that responded to the president’s, Stephenson said AT&T was halting its build-out of high-speed internet connections in 100 US cities until the company knew what rules would govern those connections. But Roberts’ message was clear: “uncertainty” under Title II could mean less money spent on better connections.
Instead of courting that risk, the subtext of Roberts’ presentation seemed to be: don’t worry so much. We support an open internet. We’ve got a cool new interface for cable that integrates Twitter and IFTTT. It has voice control, new options for binge-watching, even sophisticated new audio navigation for blind users. Consumers want TV to work more like the Internet, and we listened. You want innovation? Here it is.
More change than that, it seems, is not the kind Comcast can believe in.