Comcast says it will lend a helping hand to Vonage, the Internet phone company, to make sure the cable giant’s network management techniques don’t mess up Vonage’s phone service. This is good news for Vonage, which is already fighting to keep its customers. And it’s a nice bit of corporate image fluffing for Comcast, which looks like a better company for helping out its direct competitor. But this is a dangerous precedent — and one Comcast should re-think.
What exactly are the companies doing together? You’d never know from the nonsensical press release the companies sent out yesterday. But the WSJ uncovers some details today: Comcast and Vonage will have “a direct line of communications” between their network operations centres — presumably a speed dial button on a bat phone somewhere. And Vonage will participate in “testing the impact of Comcast’s network management techniques on its service.”
Sounds harmless, right? But what happens if Comcast finds out that some of its network management algorithms actually do affect Vonage’s phone service? What if they make changes to the way their system works to accommodate Vonage?
If so, then Comcast is saying that they’ll tweak the way their networks work because of a business relationship with another company. So will they make sure eBay’s (EBAY) Skype works, too? Google’s (GOOG) GrandCentral? T-Mobile’s @Home phone service? Jajah? Apple’s (AAPL) iChat?
Where does it end? Will they have to make sure YouTube works, or Hulu? If so, then the idea of net neutrality — that every bit of information that goes across Comcast’s network gets treated the same — is even more of a farce.
We don’t have an ideal solution for Comcast. Obviously telecom companies need to somehow regulate the way their networks function. And Vonage knew before it started that it would always be relying on other companies’ pipes for its lifeline. But tweaking the way the Internet works based on a commercial relationship — even for consumers’ thereotical benefit — is a scary precedent.
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