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When IPTV Isn’t OTT: Comcast’s Dilemma

Don’t look now, but Stream TV, Comcast’s new Internet protocol-delivered skinny-bundle service, is about to open up an old can of worms tied to the Federal Communications Commission’s network-neutrality rules.

For its part, Comcast has been above board about its data-usage policy for Stream TV, a $15-per-month service that offers the major broadcasters and HBO. In an online FAQ, Comcast said the in-home service is exempt from usage-based broadband data plans it is testing in several markets.

Stream TV customers (Comcast has launched the service in Chicago and Boston) also have access to TV Everywhere apps such as HBO Go, which can be accessed in or out-of-home through high-speed Internet connections that are subject to broadband- usage policies.

Comcast has not announced if or when it might enact the new high-speed Internet policies nationwide, but it has been kicking the tires on several usage-based approaches. Some charge extra for buckets of data when customers exceed their monthly allowances; a newer “Unlimited Data Option,” which runs an additional $30 to $35 per month, would seem to be tailored for cord-cutters who get most of their video from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and other OTT providers.


Comcast’s policy with Stream TV, a service for broadband-only customers, is catching some heat from bloggers and othes who believe it violates network-neutrality rules or, at the very least, puts other online video services at a disadvantage.

But Stream TV is not an OTT service, Comcast has insisted. That’s because it is delivered over separately provisioned bandwidth, and because the IP traffic it generates does not intermix with the traffic and bandwidth set aside for Comcast’s public high-speed Internet products.

That means Comcast is not prioritizing IP traffic. Rather, it’s using a separately managed swath of bandwidth for its IP-delivered services. DOCSIS 3.0 modems are flexible in that some tuners can be used for regular high-speed Internet service, while others can be used for managed IP services, like Stream TV or Comcast’s Xfinity TV app for X1.

“Stream TV is an in-home, IP-cable service delivered over Comcast’s cable network, not over the public Internet,” Comcast said in a statement amid growing questions about its policies. “IP-cable is not an ‘over-the-top’ streaming video service. Stream enables customers to enjoy their cable TV service on mobile devices in the home delivered over the managed cable network, without the need for additional equipment, like a traditional set-top-box.”

Comcast isn’t alone. Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications are streaming video over managed IP connections for their respective Roku apps. AT&T U-verse also nails up separate IP capacity for its managed U-verse TV offering that is not subject to the telco’s Internet data usage policies.

Don’t be shocked if this is evoking a sense of déjà vu. In 2012, Comcast received some backlash from Netflix for a managed IP VOD app for the Xbox 360 that was exempt from the MSO’s Internet data-usage policies. Comcast pulled the plug on its Xbox 360 app earlier this year.


For now, the rules appear to be in Comcast’s favor when it comes to managed IPTV services, which are viewed differently in terms of regulations than services delivered over a public Internet connection. In MVPD definition rules issued last December, the FCC said “an entity that delivers cable services via IP is a cable operator to the extent it delivers those services as managed video services over its own facilities and within its footprint.”

The FCC also appears to be OK with the idea behind so-called “zero-rated” services that don’t count against data plans, including T-Mobile’s new “Binge On” offering.

In comments Nov. 19, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler praised Binge On as “highly innovative and highly competitive,” and within the bounds of the agency’s Open Internet order.

MCN/B&C Washington bureau chief John Eggerton contributed to this story.