In a move that riled net neutrality advocates, Comcast confirmed today that it's not counting data streamed through its new online video service, Stream, against consumers' monthly data allotments.
The $15 a month service, which launched this week in Boston and Chicago, enables Comcast's broadband-only subscribers to use their Web connections to access many of the same programs that cable customers can watch. The lineup includes all broadcast channels and HBO.
In addition to watching shows in real time while at home, Stream subscribers can also access a cloud-based DVR, which lets them watch recorded shows on any device, and on any broadband provider's network.
Of course, many cord-cutters probably are already paying for other services, like Hulu or Netflix, that enable them to watch some of the same programs as Stream. But Stream will have at least one clear advantage over those other services: Videos watched through Stream will be exempt from the company's usage-based billing tests. Currently, some Comcast subscribers in test markets can only consume 300 GB of data a month before they're charged overages of $10 per 50 GB.
Decisions by Internet service providers to exempt their own video offerings from data caps typically raise red flags among net neutrality advocates, who say broadband providers shouldn't give preferential treatment to their own services.
For its part, Comcast says that Stream is a "managed service," comparable to cable TV, which isn't subject to net neutrality rules.
The net neutrality regulations, which took effect earlier this year, prohibit broadband providers from blocking or degrading service and from creating online fast lanes. The regulations also broadly ban Internet service providers from engaging in conduct that interferes with people's ability to access Web content. Zero-rating could potentially violate that prohibition depending on the circumstances; the FCC has said it intends to take a case-by-case approach the question.
It's not yet clear whether regulators will conclude that Comcast's new service violates net neutrality principles. But this isn't the first time that Comcast has sparked controversy with data-cap exclusions. In 2012, Comcast began offering a service that allowed Xfinity subscribers to watch TV on demand on Xbox 360 consoles. The company said at the time that data streamed to the Xbox through this program wouldn't count against their monthly caps -- which were 250 GB per month at the time. Last month, Comcast discontinued its Xfinity for Xbox app.
In 2012, advocacy group Public Knowledge asked the FCC to stop Comcast from exempting data streamed to the Xbox. Harold Feld, a vice president at the organization, pointed out today that the group's complaint remains pending. "Maybe now @FCC will act?," he tweeted.