The U.S. Department of Justice has accomplished through its power to disapprove mergers a level of protection for Internet-services customers what the agencies responsible for protecting those customers declined to provide: a tiny concession from a major ISP that it would do something to protect for business and consumer Internet-service customers.
As part of the agreement required to win approval of its acquisition of NBC Universal, Comcast had to agree to license NBC content to potential competitors and – much more significantly for those concerned more about Internet equality than on what device to watch "30 Rock," – it agreed not to keep its 17 million Internet subscribers from getting video from Netflix or other competitors.
The DoJ did not require and Comcast did not promise to not throttle or slow traffic from Netflix -- or a business customer's videoconferencing provider -- if Comcast thought it needed to do so to keep its network running to its satisfaction. It only promised to not block that traffic entirely, which the FCC's net neutrality rules also required. Those rules are being challenged in federal court and in Congress, however.
Cable is the second most-common Internet-access method for businesses, according to a study from the U.S. Small Business Administration.
If either or both effort succeeds, the DoJ's stipulation will be the most concrete federal rule keeping ISPs from tuning their networks so their own services run well and those of their competitors are slow and jittery.
The news is great for Comcast, and sounds good for most of its cable Internet subscribers, it actually hurts not only them but the millions of businesses that rely on cable for broadband Internet as well.
A third of small and medium-sized businesses get their Internet connections through cable modems at monthly costs that range between $86 and $124 per month – a total annual cost of $10.6 billion in 2008, according to a November, 2010 report on the impact of broadband on small businesses from the federal Small Business Administration.
Some of those companies are mom-and-pop operations; a lot more of them are branch offices or business units geographically separated from the main company, getting broadband rated at up to 20Mbit/sec for download from Comcast – and potentially higher from Verizon FiOS.
Real speeds max out at about 16Mbit/sec, according to Akamai.
As the speed of cable and fiber access to consumers has risen, so has the number of businesses relying on it for their Internet connections.
Because Comcast and other ISPs can currently choose to throttle traffic they consider detrimental to their networks, those business customers could find their videoconferencing traffic, VoIP, bandwidth-intensive SAAS access and other cloud-based or Web 2.0 services throttled.
Half of all very small businesses still use DSL, for example, but are migrating toward cable and other connections, the SBA report shows. Half of rural companies and 37 percent of those in metro areas are dissatisfied with the speed of their connections.
The SBA report concluded that the lack of competition was making SMEs less competitive, less able to adapt to new business conditions and was costing them too much for the service they were getting.
In October, when the FCC was considering which of the net neutrality rule suggestions sent in by Verizon, Google and others would be the basis of its policy, the SBA asked that the FCC watch out for consumers and businesses by doing two radical things:
2. Do something about it.
Unfortunately, the FCC didn't do anything – not much, anyway.
The FCC is being sued by Verizon for what little it did, and pilloried by unthinking deregulate-everything portions of the U.S. House of Representatives for daring to think it had the right to do anything at all.
Almost accidentally the DoJ, protecting consumers' right to watch TV on whatever device they want, has done more to ensure businesses won't have their videoconferencing or other Web 2.0 services throttled than the FCC did when it addressed the issue on purpose.
Among the top concerns for SMBs buying Internet services are the availability of competition and conficence ISPs won't block services are among the top requirements for businesses buying Internet services.