The Comcast-Netflix Deal Threatens Net Neutrality

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Netflix has agreed to pay US internet service provider (ISP) Comcast an undisclosed fee to relieve internet “congestion” and ensure smoother streaming of Netflix content. The move has renewed fears that major US ISPs will prioritise content in return for a fee, jeopardising the principles of net neutrality.

The Comcast/Netflix deal, sealed earlier this week and only ten days after Comcast’s announcement that it intends to purchase Time Warner Cable, is a landmark in the telecoms industry.

Although details of the terms have not been disclosed, it is understood that Netflix’s chief executive, Reed Hastings, and his opposite number at Comcast, Brian Roberts, agreed the framework of a deal at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month. The deal is expected to last several years, during which Netflix will route its content to Comcast through third-party data centres, despite its wishes to house its servers directly with Comcast.  

As demand for Netflix’s streaming services has increased in recent years (it now accounts for just over 30% of downstream US internet traffic), so providers such as Comcast have complained that use of the streaming service has overloaded its pipes, leading to slow load times for consumers. Under the traditional internet model, the situation has been made especially challenging for Cogent Communications, just one of the many internet “middlemen” that receives Netflix data and distributes it directly to Comcast servers. Cogent has repeatedly asked Comcast to upgrade the infrastructure that connects it to Comcast in the past, but Comcast has laid the responsibility squarely at Cogent’s door. The situation has resulted in deadlock, until now.

Although little mention has been made of Cogent’s fate, the Netflix/Comcast agreement effectively re-draws the model for internet provision in the US, and ends years of dispute between internet companies and service providers over who should shoulder the responsibility of paying to upgrade the country’s internet infrastructure. Crucially, it puts ISPs and content providers in direct contact with each other, threatening the future business of backbone internet providers such as Cogent.

Although this is not the first time that Netflix has secured a direct link agreement with a broadband provider (it has sealed agreements with smaller operators in the past, such as Cablevision Systems), the key difference this time around is that Comcast has demanded payment. And by convincing Netflix to shoulder the cost, not only does this give already-dominant US ISPs such as Verizon and Comcast significantly more leverage over pipeline infrastructure investment negotiations, it also puts them in primary position to decide whether they wish to engage in discriminatory practices when it comes to handling content provider data.

Circumventing the need for backbone providers, which have broadly kept the market for internet service provision competitive and prevented ISPs from discriminating against traffic from specific sources, will undoubtedly strengthen both Netflix and Comcast’s hand. Given the adverse effect this will have on the prospects of future video-streaming start-ups, and the implication that ISPs will be allowed to divide what is essentially a single internet pipeline into “fast” and “slow” lanes (bestowing ISPs with more monopoly power), net neutrality advocates are worried.

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has broadly shown itself to be on the side of net neutrality in the past, and it still harbours reservations over Comcast’s proposed takeover of Time Warner Cable on anti-competitive grounds. But given that the Netflix/Comcast deal is skating over relatively new ground, essentially creating a whole new framework for internet provision, current net neutrality guidelines are ill-equipped to deal with the potential issues that could arise.

Acting under the assumption that this latest agreement could spark off a whole host of similar agreements between content providers and ISPs, the FCC would have a hard job of regulating and monitoring different connection arrangements in terms of speed, reliability and payment structures. Reversing a decades-old trend that has seen ISPs buy up large parts of the US’s internet pipeline infrastructure, transforming themselves into both end-user service providers and owners of the pipeline network is, likewise, difficult if not virtually impossible.

The FCC’s options are therefore limited, although pressure from net neutrality advocates could force the regulator to scrutinise the Time Warner Cable deal much more closely, particularly given that it would give Comcast access to one-third of all high-speed internet users in the US. Pressure from consumer advocates is sure to heighten too, with the added concern that Comcast, which has been described by one individual in the industry as having “almost comically profitable” profit margins in excess of 90%, may pass on Netflix’s increased costs to consumers. Whatever action the FCC chooses to take, one thing is for certain, the next step is sure to unravel a whole new path for internet provision in the US.

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Whoever Runs Taco Bell’s Twitter Account Deserves A Raise

Taco Bell, which continues to extract product ideas through focus groups apparently comprised of starving potheads, has been killing it on Twitter for years. The fast food joint regularly tops lists of best brand accounts on social media and has more followers on Twitter alone than the state of Rhode Island has residents.

For good reason! Whichever public relations intern or team of meticulous, well-trained professionals is in charge of @TacoBell is doing a bang-up job with a clever combination of retweets, sassy comebacks, hashtags and whimsical life advice. We kind of, a little bit, maybe want Taco Bell to be our best friend. Here’s why.

First off, Taco Bell supports our weird food cravings.

And has celebrity friends.

But Taco Bell also has really great ideas.

And shares our love for “Mean Girls.”

It’s not afraid to talk back.

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Nor does it tolerate bigotry.

And it offers some sage advice.

Taco Bell sends gifts!

(Sometimes while feeding conspiracy theories.)

And it’s very accommodating.

It really knows its priorities.

In short, Taco Bell is magic.


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Neuromorphic Processors and the Fall of Man

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What will happen when a computer cannot only think, but can think better than a brain? In terms of executive function. if the brain, which heads the food chain, as far as both humans and animals are concerned, can be mass produced, with the concomitant economies of scale, warranties, and even planned obsolescence, then why depend on nature? Who needs it or her? In an article entitled “Brainlike Computers, Learning From Experience” (NYT, 12/28/13), the Times’s John Markoff describes how

“new processors consist of electronic components that can be connected by wires that mimic biological synapses”

and quotes Dharmendra Modha of I.B.M. who says,

“Instead of bringing data to computation as we do today, we can now bring computation to data.”

Formerly computers were like dogs or other animals who you could teach to do tricks, but the new chips are producing computers that can

“automate tasks that now require painstaking programming–for example moving a robot’s arm smoothly and efficiently.”

Google’s Sebastian Thrun has taken robotics so far as to produce a driverless car. The kind of “neuromorphic processors” that Markoff is referring to, of course, are just the tip of the iceberg. In The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology , Ray Kurzweil predicted that nanotechnology would produce immortality. But what is really as stake is the future of consciousness. It’s Darwin all over again. Computers will eventually become more naturally selective than brains and a more convenient receptacle for life as we know it–with computer generated consciousness in turn becoming more naturally selective than life itself. Well at least there won’t be the usual justifiable anxieties about work and love, which everyone tells you are all in your head. Now all of existence will be reduced to one big cyber soup.

Photo: Peggy Greb

{This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy’s blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture}

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How Scientists Plan to Farm on Mars

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In the coming decades, NASA has big plans for Mars, including intentions to blast a fifth rover onto the planet’s surface by 2020 and send a manned mission by 2030.

But long before humans step onto Mars’ barren terrain, scientists and researchers from around the world want to understand more about its potential to support human life.

They’re especially interested in the possibility of growing plants on Mars, a more efficient process that would partially remove the need to ship expensive freeze-dried rations to the planet. Allowing crops to grow there that produce oxygen and scrub carbon dioxide there would make Mars a more livable environment. Read more…

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12 Golden Facts About Oscar Statuettes to Tell Your Friends

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LOS ANGELES — You can’t have a proper Academy Awards without Oscar, the ceremony’s gold statuette that winners love to kiss

But behind its oh-so-kissable shiny veneer lies a rich history. Below, we’ve detailed 15 facts about the statuette that will impress your friends at your Oscars viewing party March 2.

11. Where did the nickname Oscar come from?

The academy theorizes that the Oscar nickname derived from academy librarian Margaret Herrick, who in the 1930s said the award looked like her uncle named Oscar. Read more…

12. How many were created for this year’s ceremony?

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New Facebook Ads Show How To Interact With People You Actually Care About, In Real Life

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One of the biggest criticisms about Facebook is that it’s basically a database of every random person you’ve ever met, and that too many of the things on the site are meaningless drivel posted by people you have no interest in actually being friends with in real life.

The social network is combatting those criticisms with a new ad campaign, titled “Where will your friends take you?” It shows how Facebook can be used to bring people together offline to make life better.

According to Mashable, the ads were made by Wieden+Kennedy, the same agency behind 2012’s infamous “Chairs” debacle. However, the new ads take a much less philosophical approach and instead provide specific, believable examples of how people use Facebook to organize fun activities and seek valuable emotional support.

Here’s one, in which a group of friends uses Facebook Messenger to gather people for a spontaneous snow day activity that consists of putting skis on couches (again with the seating furniture!) and riding down a hill:

In another, more serious ad, a crying woman uses Messenger to ask her best friend to come console her after a breakup:

And another one shows how even online-only interactions can make people happier. Here, encouraging wallposts motivate a man to continue training for a marathon:

You can see the other four ads in the campaign on the YouTube page Facebook created for it.

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Here’s How The Major Video Players Are Pushing Mobile Viewing

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Mobile video viewing keeps rising.

According to Nielsen, an average of about 50 million people in the U.S., or 16% of the entire population, watched video on their mobile phones each month during the second quarter of 2013, up from 37 million during the same quarter a year ago.

And those numbers don’t even include tablet viewers.

While still not a majority, it is incredible uptake for an activity that once seemed poorly suited to mobile devices.

In a recent report from BI Intelligence, we look at how each of the major video content players has pushed mobile viewing. They have made moves on a number of fronts to make sure that video is widely available across devices and that people find the experience of watching video on mobile intuitive and compelling.

We break down the extent to which the mobile video boom has changed what people watch, and how. Being able to track the shift to mobile video and predict the type of content that thrives on tablet and phone screens is the key to any long-term media or advertising strategy. The report also spotlights the most significant statistics that show just how many eyeballs are at stake on tablet and smartphone screens. 

Access the Full Report By Signing Up For A Free Trial Today > > 

Here are some examples of how major video content players have adjusted to and driven mobile viewing:

  • Netflix: The company deployed its original Netflix app especially for the iPad. It was one of the first apps to be showcased on the iPad at the device’s debut, making the app virtually synonymous with tablet-based video consumption, and the tablet synonymous with video viewing.
  • YouTube: In mid-2013, Google reported that 40% of YouTube traffic was viewed on mobile, up from just 25% a year earlier. It’s the payoff for the prescient creation of a mobile-specific engineering team in 2007 before mobile video viewership had really even taken off.
  • VEVO: Some of the most successful content on YouTube is created for “channels” that YouTube users can subscribe to. Some of these channels are hugely popular on mobile. VEVO is a music video platform and a joint venture between Google and two of the top global recording companies, Sony and Universal Music Group. Already, one half of VEVO’s audience accesses on mobile.
  • Hulu: Hulu is essentially the VEVO of TV. It was conceived as a joint venture of the NBC, Fox, and ABC TV networks. Hulu’s revenue model is similar to YouTube’s ad-driven model. But with its subscription channel, Hulu Plus, Hulu adds a Netflix dimension by offering premium, up-to-date TV content behind a pay wall. Giving the Hulu subscription model a further edge, mobile device viewing is limited to users with a Hulu Plus subscription.
  • Vimeo: Vimeo has the lowest profile of the fast-growing platforms, with only about 70 million monthly unique visitors on the ad-supported network, less than half as many monthly visitors as YouTube. There is no solid report on Vimeo’s mobile users or traffic. But Vimeo completely revamped its iOS app in time for the launch of the updated iOS 7, with a key new feature allowing Vimeo members to upload videos to their accounts straight from their iPhone or iPad.

The report is full of charts and data that can be downloaded and put to use. 

In full, the report: 

For full instant access to the report on Mobile Video, sign up for a free two week trial subscription to BI Intelligence. 

 

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