Apple Inc. is in talks with Comcast Corp. on a potential deal for a streaming television service that would allow the tech giant's set-top boxes to bypass congestion on the Internet, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday.
The discussions are in early stages and there are a lot of hurdles to be crossed before a definitive agreement could be reached, the Journal report said.
Apple, which wants its TV service's traffic to be separated from public internet traffic over the "last mile" for faster transmission, is looking for special treatment from Comcast's cables to bypass congestion, the report said.
Comcast and Apple declined to comment on the report.
Some analysts worry about the impact the deal would have on "net neutrality," the idea that Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all online content equally, charging everyone the same amount of fees for equally fast access to all websites.
The principle of net-neutrality prevents ISPs from interfering with, blocking or discriminating against Web content. That principle was once enshrined in U.S. law under the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) net neutrality rules, which prohibited ISPs from prioritizing any one provider’s traffic over another and ensured that consumers had equal access to all lawful content.
But a federal court in January struck down key parts of the rules, finding that the federal government cannot enforce net neutrality.
Despite the court's decision, Comcast had agreed to continue abiding by the rules until 2018, according to NPR.
For its part, Apple says that it isn't seeking high-priority status from Comcast, but simply wants a “flow” that is separate from the rest of the Internet traffic, according to the Journal.
But critics worry the deal, if reached, would set a precedent allowing third-party providers to pay for better access, leaving smaller companies paying higher fees for similar service — fees that would likely be passed on to consumers.
Although the details of the deal are not yet known, experts say that it potentially raises a lot of questions for net neutrality. "This is an example of a company that feels llike it needs to get permission from an ISP in order to launch a new service," Michael Weinberg, vice president of Public Knowledge, a D.C.-based public interest group, told Al Jazeera. "In this case, it seems that they want to launch an online video service that would compete with Comcast’s TV service. So the idea is if you want to launch a service that competes with an ISP, you need to get permission from the ISP first. That’s not a very good state of affairs," he said.
ISPs would become gatekeepers who get to decide which services work online and which ones do not, said Weinberg. “And that’s a problem because it forces companies to pay extra to be able to get on the fast lane,” he said.
That means smaller companies and start-ups will be less competitive and any higher costs will be passed on to consumers. “It raises pricing in a way that is similar to cable TV pricing. You end up paying more as a consumer but you’re not in a position to negotiate.”
In a similar deal, Netflix agreed last month to pay Comcast for faster speeds, throwing open the possibility that more content companies will have to shell out for better service.
"If Comcast's network is inadequate and if companies are being forced to pay Comcast in order to get around the problem, then they have an incentive to keep the problem in place," said Weinberg.
Apple's $99 TV box competes with similar streaming devices from Roku and Google Inc.
The FCC is in the process of drafting a new net-neutrality bill that would ensure that network operators disclose exactly how they manage Internet traffic and that they do not restrict consumers' ability to surf the Web or use applications.
On Thursday, more than 40 groups sent a letter urging FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to reclassify broadband access services to "protect freedom of expression online."
Al Jazeera and Reuters. Amel Ahmed contributed to this report.