Consumer advocates are urging regulators to take action against Comcast's new video service, Stream TV.
The service, which was launched last year, allows people to purchase and watch TV on their computers and phones without it counting against their Internet data caps.
Advocacy group Public Knowledge filed a 30-page complaint against Comcast Wednesday night, charging that the streaming service violates conditions from its 2011 merger with NBC-Universal.
"Comcast’s zero-rating of Stream TV violates the text and the spirit of its binding merger commitments and a [Department of Justice] Consent Decree, and stands in stark contrast with the Commission’s Open Internet rules," Public Knowledge concluded. "No loopholes or regulatory shell games excuse its actions."
Public Knowledge says the program, for all intent and purposes, is an online video service. Because using the service does not count against Comcast's monthly Internet usage caps imposed in some markets, the advocacy group says it would harm competition and "enhance its roles as a video gatekeeper."
According to the 2011 merger conditions, Comcast agreed that if it imposed Internet data caps, it would not treat its own video services differently than others. Because Comcast's own Stream TV is exempt from data caps in a process known as "zero rating," Public Knowledge argues it is giving itself favorable treatment.
But both sides differ on whether the offering is actually an online service.
If the service ran over the Internet, it would be subject to Internet rules, rather than separate cable rules.
Comcast defines Stream TV as a cable service delivered "over Comcast's cable system, not over the Internet."
"Customers do not access Stream TV through their broadband service. Period," Comcast said in a statement. "Public Knowledge saying so over and over does not make it so. The bottom line is that Stream TV doesn’t violate any [Federal Communications Commission] or DOJ requirement from our NBCUniversal deal, just as the complaints they filed over three years ago which the FCC declined to take action on did not."
Public Knowledge dismisses that claim.
Public Knowledge a few years back filed a similar merger complaint against a now-defunct Xfinity app, but the FCC never acted on it. Comcast said it has no plans now to file a formal rebuttal unless the commission asks for one.
Comcast reportedly imposes data caps in about 15 percent of its Internet market. Those caps are usually set at about 300 GB per month, according to Public Knowledge.
To put that in perspective, Netflix estimates that 1 hour of high quality video streaming eats up 3GB per hour. And the average American watches 31 hours of video a week, not necessarily online. As of now, Stream TV is only available in a handful of states.