Titans buy the fast lane on the Internet

But the bigger issue is that everyone in the U.S. gets lousy broadband service

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Another month, another chapter in the ongoing dramedy: “America’s Embarrassing Excuse for a Broadband Market.”

The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that Apple and Comcast are in talks “about teaming up for a streaming-television service that would use an Apple set-top box and get special treatment on Comcast’s cables to ensure it bypasses congestion on the Web.” Apple was chatting with Time Warner Cable about the idea previously, but those discussions froze thanks to a little merger announcement — something to do with Time Warner and Comcast.

According to the Journal, Apple wants to make sure its streaming service has its own roadway through Comcast’s network so its data won’t get mired in other Internet traffic. That way, it will be able to deliver video with the same quality as Comcast’s cable offerings: no random pixelation, no sudden timeouts in the middle of your show.

In an ideal world, where the United States had a respectably fast broadband infrastructure, these discussions wouldn’t have to happen at all. As you may recall, Netflix announced its own deal with Comcast last month to improve delivery of its streaming video — after which Netflix CEO Reed Hastings published a screed about the need for stronger net neutrality protections.

But every time you see one of these agreements, keep in mind that the fundamental issue isn’t so much net neutrality — the idea that Internet service providers should treat all data equally, no matter where it originates — as it is the crippling lack of broadband competition in this country.

Americans pay some of the highest prices for Internet access in the developed world; in return, they get some of the most mediocre service. That’s largely because consumers only have two or three providers in their geographic area, which doesn’t give Comcast or its peers a great deal of incentive to beef up their networks (or to lower prices).

If the Netflix and potential Apple deals are any sign, it may now be especially profitable for Internet Service Providers to let their services stagnate. It’s perverse but true: The more bogged down the rest of the Web becomes, the more that major content providers such as Netflix or Apple or Amazon can be charged for their own private fast lanes.

Jordan Weissmann is senior business and economics correspondent for Slate.


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