Comcast Net Neutrality Strategy in Sharp Contrast to Microsoft's ISO Strategy

Rob Enderle

It is fascinating to watch large vendors operate. In action, they don't resemble the way they portray themselves as edgy and trendy in commercials. The latest string of news on Comcast effectively walking away from the entire Net neutrality process got me to draw lines between that and the ISO OOXML event that has been on my mind for a couple of cycles. Comcast is clearly taking a different path from Microsoft.


There is a huge debate on Net neutrality, which argues that regardless of what you can afford, your connectivity should be constant. While I can see the reason behind such a movement, like many others of its type, I have trouble seeing how it will work economically. I think it will simply mean we all get Internet connections that suck.


So, I'm kind of on Comcast's side on this stuff, yet the elimination of public discourse on the subject is disturbing. The outcome of either assuring adequate Internet connections or creating an environment where large portions of the population effectively are disconnected is serious to the U.S. as a nation. This subject desperately needs to be vetted.


The Comcast Harvard Setup


A few weeks ago, Comcast did attend hearings at Harvard University and to control the discussion, stacked the audience with paid attendees. Many of these folks apparently cheered the Comcast spokesperson making a presentation; many apparently used the opportunity to catch up on their sleep.


By paying folks to attend this event, the very people who are most affected by things like Net neutrality were locked out of the hearing, effectively making it look like Comcast's position was well supported regardless of the reality.


If you've been following the OOXML ISO process, you know that a Microsoft employee paid some of the folks who voted in an early round of the approval process to show up and vote. Both Microsoft and Comcast faced a substantial amount of criticism for their respective activities. While Microsoft appeared to regret what it did, Comcast apparently did not. In both cases, but particularly in the Comcast instance, I was concerned to find out that the practice of paying people in this fashion is very common and not at all illegal. I'm probably not alone in thinking it should be.


The Comcast Stanford Response: Setting the Example


Where Microsoft continued the process until it got approval, Comcast has chosen to exit the process and likely has shifted efforts towards lobbying and other forms of political manipulation, which generally operate outside the public view. Specifically at the Stanford hearing, only one side will be represented, mostly by Lawrence Lessig, making the event far less interesting and likely keeping any related coverage down in the noise level.


After a pounding for gaming a system that clearly lacked needed controls and enforceable rules, Comcast has decided to stop playing the game. The differences between Comcast's move and Microsoft, which continued to play but also continued to get pounded, are jarring.


Now, in both cases, the companies tried to game the process and likely felt, for good reason, that third parties were gaming the process against them. In both cases, the firms were held accountable for questionable practices that were allowed within the rules. Microsoft now faces continued attacks based on alleged but unproven additional improprieties and what appears to be a connected attempt to ban products from the very geography that had put in place the ISO requirement in the first place. Comcast is largely no worse off than it was in the first place and it's arguably much better off than Microsoft.


Wrapping Up: Which Behavior from Large Companies Do You Want?


Looking at these two events, any company should come to the conclusion that the Microsoft path of trying to participate in things like this is simply stupid and that stonewalling will be vastly more successful both short and long term. If what people want is for vendors like Microsoft and Comcast to change their behavior, this would seem to me to be a foolish path. It can take decades to force a company like this to change. Look how much change we eventually got from pounding on AT&T after something like 40 years.


It is in our nature to game things; we game our performance reviews, we likely game our education (some more than others), and we certainly game our relationships. Assuming people working for companies won't do that is foolish, but the corrective effort should be focused on making the processes more robust so that some types of gaming do not compromise the quality of the outcome.


In short, if we want to successfully encourage large companies to play better, we have to use both the carrot and the stick. But use too much stick and they'll do what you or I would do in a similar situation -- avoid the process at all costs. That is what Comcast is doing and that is far from a win for those of us who just want to see things get better.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Apr 25, 2008 9:44 AM kenholmz kenholmz  says:
Well said, Rob. You have made good points and subtly referenced the shades of gray we must deal with. Saying that, I feel it reasonable to point out that (despite how often we pretend otherwise) people or not their behaviors. Paying people to pad your stats may be legal but the behavior is unethical and without integrity. Still, the persons who did the paying can choose to act differently.I do hope you are completely wrong about Comcast (assuming I understood what you wrote). Comcast may be no worse off for now, but they have behaved in a monumentally self centered manner. I agree with you that the subject of net neutrality needs to be vetted fully.I understand what you mentioned about paying for net neutrality. I can't help but think about the fact that the Internet is like nothing we mortals have experienced. When I first found myself on the Internet (yes, literally found myself on the internet in a text only situation) I spent the next twenty four hours exploring this new world. I am still exploring it. The Comcast move reminds me os scifi stories in which the world is completely dominated by corporations that have siezed power. Comcast may have waited to long to make their move. I can picture something of a cyber-rebellion if they get their way. Rob, I know things have a cost. I can only wonder what the cost will be if we cut a large portion of the world's population from the information and education that is available via the Internet. Education has long been hailed as the best way to improve the world situation. Many are apparently just now getting access. I don't think I need to be a socialist to believe some things are best kept available (even with dial-up which I must suffer at home for the forseeable future), just as the public libraries have remained a benefit for all.Please forgive my verbosity; I really believe you have opened a forum that needs to be addressed seriously. Reply
Apr 28, 2008 4:52 PM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
Hey Ken:If it was whether you have access or not I'd agree with you but after looking at some of the test results that put less than 10% of the users taking over 80% if the capacity I have to wonder if they shouldn't have to pay more. We have a fixed resource in terms of the pipe going in and out and some of use use it more heavily than others. If I wanted a T-1 I'd have to pay more so why can't we have tiered services?The problem, as I see it, is I don't actually think many of us actually agree on what Net Neutrality is. If you search on the term on the web folks are all over the map.Wikipedia does a nice job showing how confusing the term is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Network_neutralityStep one is likely to come up with a consistent definition and then we can argue whether it is good thing or not. I have no problem with tiered pricing but agree with you with regard to access. Thanks for posting! Reply

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