The other day I googled Comcast for a story about the internet. The Google Autofill results were…intriguing. People are curious about how Comcast does many things, namely things that are evil.
The searches revealed a specific and sort of sultry history of Comcast, one that highlights both its triumphant rise to telecom dominance and its many controversial activities since then. But mostly, it's the latter. Let's review.
From where did this behemoth of a cable company come? Tupelo, Mississippi of all places, in 1963. Before it became the omnipresent and generally detested conglomerate it is today, Comcast was called American Cable Systems (note the foreshadowing), and had only 1,200 subscribers.
Almost immediately, it started buying up all kinds of other companies.
From the early 70s to the end of the century, the history of Comcast (the name changed in 1969; "communication" plus "broadcast") is pretty much a list of companies—and subscribers—it acquired all over the country: smaller cable networks like Group W Cable, Storer Communications; full-on acquisitions like the purchase of E.W. Scripps, Jones Intercable Inc., and Lenfest Communications; even parts of the video game industry after Storecast, the grocery store marketing company it acquired in 1965, introduced massive franchises like Pac-Man and Asteroids.
But in 2001 things got really gnarly when Comcast acquired AT&T Broadband for $44.5 billion, bringing its subscriber count over 22 million and making it the largest cable company in the US. After a failed bid to buy Disney—and also becoming the largest media conglomerate in the world—Comcast initiated a partnership that would enable it to gobble up NBC Universal. More on that in a bit.
On top of overcharging customers, harassing them on the phone, and calling them assholes, Comcast has recently developed a habit of throwing the book at subscribers suspected of pirating content. Hence the second Autofill suggestion.
Not long after the NBC Universal acquisition, Comcast decided that it didn't just want to be a cable company but also a copyright cop for the MPAA and RIAA. Subscribers started reporting piracy warnings en masse around 2011 or so—though it's unclear how Comcast's new posture as a content company as well as internet service provider factored into this timing.
By 2013, Comcast had launched a formal "Six Strikes" program, complete with mysterious punishments and a generally Orwellian outlook on how subscribers were using its services. The company sent piracy warnings to over 625,000 customers over the course of the next year. That's roughly 3-percent of its total subscriber base.
So how did Comcast know that you were torrenting, anyways? That's easy. With help from the MPAA and RIAA, it uses technology to spot supposedly pirated content moving through its tubes and traces the torrent back to your IP address. How do you hide from Big Brother's embrace? Use a proxy.
If you follow the rules and pay for content—say, by buying a Netflix membership—Comcast can still fuck you over through throttling. In fact, the company already has, though the word "throttling" isn't necessarily the one Comcast would want to use. I think the word "bullying" best represents what Comcast did to Netflix and its customers.
Last year, on the tail end of Comcast's big anti-piracy spree, Netflix customers started complaining about poor performance. Naturally, many of them blamed Netflix and cancelled their subscriptions. Netflix, in turn, blamed Comcast for not providing them with the bandwidth they needed to ensure people could watch House of Cards without any crippling lags.
But there wasn't much Netflix could do, since Comcast controls the tubes it needs to carry that content to subscribers' computers. Netflix ended up paying Comcast cash money for a more direct route between its servers and its customers. Guess who ends up paying for that kind of deal in the long run? You do.
That sucks. Though ultimately it was the outrage over deals like this that helped elevate the conversation about net neutrality. Netflix CEO even took to the pages of Wired to vent his frustrations with how the growing oligarchy of big cable companies stood to ruin the internet as we know it.
Almost exactly a year after news of Comcast strong-arming Netflix emerged, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed the strongest net neutrality rules in American history. However, the simple fact remains that most Americans only have one, maybe two choices for a broadband provider. More often then not, that one and only choice is Comcast.
Alright, Google Autofill, now we're talking brass tacks. How did Comcast become a monopoly? Well, if you scroll up to that part about how Comcast got started, you'll remember that it was dead set on expansion from the start. Comcast wants it all. It established such a stranglehold over the American cable industry by buying everything that the government would let it.
In the company's half-century in existence, Comcast has chosen to acquire its competitors instead of duking it out on the open market. And now Americans have one choice for internet service—a service so crucial it's increasingly considered a right and regulated as a public utility. This is a big problem. And if Comcast gets its way, the situation will only get worse for consumers.
Right now, Comcast is the middle of another, more massive acquisition, one that would enable that little cable company from Tupelo to swallow Time Warner Cable whole and go from being the Goliath of the cable industry to a siamese twin Goliath. Thankfully, this might not happen. But who knows what its corporate lobbyists are capable of.
Speaking of media consolidation and lobbying, how did Comcast manage to thwart antitrust concerns and acquire NBC? Money. Lots and lots of money. Billions of dollars for the acquisition and who knows how much to grease the palms of the folks in Washington that decide whether or not these kinds of deals should go through. Add the cost of counterintelligence operations into the mix and you've got a deal. Comcast is good at deals.
Of course, Comcast's cable and internet service is not a deal. It's a ripoff and a monthly reminder that America's internet is fundamentally broken. If you change your Google search from "How did Comcast" to "Why did Comcast," you get a similar list of autofilled questions from harried customers. Why did Comcast raise my bill? Because it can.