About a year ago we noted how Comcast has a weird tendency to prevent its broadband users
from being able to use HBO Go on some fairly standard technology, including incredibly common Roku hardware. For several years Roku users couldn't use HBO Go if they had a Comcast connection, and for just as long Comcast refused to explain why. Every other broadband provider had no problem ensuring the back-end authentication (needed to confirm you have a traditional cable connection) worked, but not Comcast.
HBO Go is part of the cable and broadcast industry's "TV Everywhere" initiative, the shortfalls of which we've tackled previously
. HBO Go, as part of the TV Everywhere initiative, requires you prove you're a traditional cable customer before you can access most online content. For example, if you want to watch HBO Go on your Roku 3, the HBO Go app simply needs Comcast servers to quickly confirm that you are a paying cable customer. Comcast's refusing to make this part of the connection process work, effectively restricting users from using bandwidth they pay for, over hardware they own, to access content they also pay for.
The goal of course is to keep as many users as possible on Comcast's X1 set top platform and away from the most popular Internet video devices. Last I saw, Roku sells around 30% of all streaming video hardware sold in any given month. Comcast clearly can't admit they're being shifty, so when pressed on why it takes them years to set up a simple authentication mechanism, the company usually makes up a rotating crop of bullshit excuses:
"With every new website, device or player we authenticate, we need to work through technical integration and customer service which takes time and resources. Moving forward, we will continue to prioritize as we partner with various players."
Roku had to file an FCC complaint
to get Comcast to finally stop doing this. At the time, the filing
argued that while "throttling" and "blocking" get all the attention as weapons of discrimination, the TV Everywhere authentication model is also a useful weapon for large cable providers when it comes to harming competing services:
"While an ISP can throttle content delivery speeds to effect anti-competitive discrimination, throttling is only the most transparent of a long list of discriminatory actions than an ISP with market power can undertake. [Additional discriminatory actions may] include control over data caps and authentication to hinder content and platforms that directly compete with the ISP's own or affiliated content."
And the problem wasn't just with Roku. When HBO Go on the Playstation 3 was released, it worked with every other TV-Everywhere compatible provider, but not Comcast. When customers complained in the Comcast forums
, they were greeted with total silence. When customers called in to try and figure out why HBO Go wouldn't work, they usually received incorrect statements from front level support (it should arrive in 48 hours, don't worry!).
Fast forward nearly a year since the HBO Go Playstation 3 launch (it still doesn't work), and Sony has now announced
an HBO Go app for the Playstation 4 console. And guess what -- when you go to activate
the app you'll find it works with every major broadband ISP -- except Comcast. Why? Comcast still won't really say, but the company appears to have backed away from claims that the delay is due to technical or customer support issues, and is now telling forum visitors
the hangup is related to some ambiguous business impasse:
"HBO Go availability on PS3 (and some other devices) are business decisions and deal with business terms that have not yet been agreed to between the parties. Thanks for your continued patience."
Since every other ISP (including AT&T, Verizon, and Time Warner Cable) didn't have a problem supporting the app, you have to assume Comcast specifically isn't getting something from Sony or HBO it would like (read: enough money to make them feel comfortable about potentially cannibalizing traditional TV/HBO viewers). Comcast's basically using the TV Anywhere authentication mechanism -- as opposed to outright blocking or throttling -- to prohibit its customers from accessing content in a way Comcast doesn't approve of. In this way Comcast's behavior, while not necessarily a net neutrality offense on its surface, is certainly part of the conversation in regards to gatekeeper power.
Fortunately for users in this instance, HBO's about to launch a stand alone app
that won't need cable authentication, taking Comcast out of the equation anyway. Still, this is a good example of how crafting net neutrality rules is only part of the conversation about mega-ISP power. It's great to have rules governing the pipes themselves, but they don't mean much if other anti-competitive behaviors can just be hidden behind half-answers and faux-technical nonsense for years on end without repercussion.