The Federal Communications Commission announced Friday it will collect information about deals between Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon and content providers like Netflix in response to concern that connection deals between such companies pose a threat to consumer rights.
Netflix has announced deals to directly connect its streaming video traffic to the Comcast and Verizon networks to ensure easy downloads for users of the Internet service providers. Such deals, known as peering agreements, traditionally have been free, but ISPs have started requesting payment in recent years as Internet traffic grows along with the costs of maintaining that traffic.
The FCC website has received 19,000 comments related to whether Internet providers are deliberately slowing the delivery of Netflix content to damage its video quality and pressure it into a peering deal. Comcast competes with Netflix through its online video service Xfinity.
In response to these concerns, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced the commission will collect information “across the board” from “multiple” ISPs and content providers to determine whether there has been any harm done to consumers.
“We don’t know the answers and we are not suggesting that any company is at fault,” Wheeler said during a commission meeting Friday. “Consumers must get what they pay for. As the consumers' representative, we need to know what is going on. I have therefore directed the commission staff to obtain the information we need to understand precisely what is happening in order to understand whether consumers are being harmed.”
Peering agreements would not be covered by the net neutrality rules currently being considered through the commission's public comment process. The philosophy of net neutrality is that ISPs must treat all online traffic equally without slowing or blocking it to serve its own competitive interests. Wheeler described the collection of peering information as “separate but related” to the call for transparency in the proposed rules.
Consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge commended Wheeler’s announcement, having previously called for companies to share peering-deal details to help determine whether they are charging content providers to help maintain the costs of Internet services, or if they are abusing their power and adding expenses because they can.
“The first step to being able to correctly evaluate agreements connected to peering and interconnection is to understand how the market works generally,” Michael Weinberg, vice president at Public Knowledge, said in a statement. “We look forward to participating in this process. Whatever the result, the public benefits when it can evaluate conditions on the merits without having to rely on bits of secondhand information.”
Consumer advocates like Public Knowledge have said paid peering agreements could raise costs for consumers if Netflix must pay more to deliver video content. Higher costs also may damage competition in the tech industry, raising the price of doing business for new companies, consumer groups have said.
Similar concerns also apply to the proposed net neutrality rules being reviewed by the FCC. Internet giants including Google, Facebook and Amazon oppose the proposed rules, arguing they could allow priority online traffic and increase costs for websites and their users.