No Good Deed Goes Unpunished – Washington Advocacy Run Amok


Recently, my son, who will attend college in the fall to study computer science, called me down to his basement lair to show me the new interface offered by the Xbox console.

Using Kinect, he was able to both speak to the Xbox and use hand gestures to navigate content.  It was fun, hip and effective.  He also demonstrated how services like Xbox Live gaming, Netflix, VUDU, and HBO Go could be accessed in a common way.  The only problem – he said – is that he cannot yet get cable channels on the Xbox, but that he was looking forward to being able to do so.

This is the kind of innovation that everyone – industry, regulators, public interest advocates and Internet evangelists – has been calling for.  It’s the use of Internet Protocol (IP) to deliver cable content so that the programming can have more of the exciting functionality we have come to enjoy on the Web and also make it easier to watch your cable channels on other devices than the cable box.  It also is a step toward alleviating the pain of those who moan about set-top boxes, “Get rid of them!”

This week, news broke of the availability of a Comcast Xfinity TV app for Xbox Live (as well as HBO GO and MLB.TV), helping to bring this content-on-any device-box-killing-sexy interface-vision into reality. Much like the Xfinity app for the iPad and iPhone, users can access a variety of video on-demand.

Let’s be clear, it’s not a new streaming service like Netflix or Hulu, which are delivered to you over the public Internet. It’s nothing more than giving cable subscribers the content they pay for that is delivered to the set-top, but in a form that allows you to access it on the admittedly more hip Xbox, integrating the experience for those who build their leisure time around Halo, Mass Effect 3 and Madden NFL.  For a consumer with an Xbox, this is a major and exciting innovation.  My son – and, presumably, others like him – is psyched.

Given all of this I am bemused and disappointed to see the advocacy group, Public Knowledge, scream with alarm this week that somehow this new service raises questions about the survival of the open Internet.

Really???  The Internet is going to die as a result of consumers watching Mad Men on Xbox?  Many now crying mortal danger have long lectured cable companies to offer content in IP, to get rid of boxes, to offer better interfaces and guides, and to allow people to access content on other devices.  Yet, when a cable company actually does it, they are killing the Internet?

Public Knowledge claims the app threatens net neutrality.  First, as a factual matter, this is flatly wrong.  The FCC in crafting its net neutrality rules expressly allowed this type of service, which does not use the public Internet, recognizing it would be good for innovation and good for consumers. (Note this GigaOM post which acknowledges that the video traffic going to the Xbox does not travel over the public Internet.)

Many public interest groups did not like this (preferring government-managed and dumb – as opposed to innovative – pipes).  The FCC wisely rejected this approach, understanding that existing service providers needed to innovate to delight customers. So, what we are really seeing is folks trying to get another bite at the regulatory apple.

Second, Comcast is not counting this service against its bandwidth caps because it is not a service provided over the open Internet; indeed, it is similar to the service it delivers now through one technology protocol (MPEG), but sent by way of a different protocol (IP).  The shift to IP transport will provide enormous benefits to consumers and a powerful springboard for innovation.

Exaggerating the risk to the Internet and suggesting non-existent legal violations in order to reargue the desire for greater government control over the network, is putting a pro-regulatory agenda ahead of the interests of consumers.

UPDATE: Below is a video featuring Comcast’s Tom Blaxland demonstrating the features of the Xfinity service through the Xbox.