Comcast internet subscribers shopping around for streaming video services are going to have a pretty convincing reason to opt for the company's own product, called Stream TV. That's because data used for the service won't count against subscribers' data caps, which start at 300GB per month. In addition, bandwidth used by the service won't impact your network speeds — Comcast will route Stream TV data over bandwidth you aren't paying for, so your internet speeds won't drop while you're watching TV. Needless to say, competing services like Netflix, PlayStation Vue, and Sling TV enjoy no such advantages.
Stream TV launched in its first markets, Boston and Chicago, this past week, and the company confirmed to Ars Technica that data used for the service wouldn't be counted for data caps. In an FAQ, the company explains that since "Stream TV is a cable streaming service delivered over Comcast's cable system, not over the internet," it won't impact your data usage.
"Stream TV is a cable streaming service delivered over Comcast's cable system, not over the internet."
That sounds a lot like a tricky loophole to avoid running afoul of FCC regulations. The FCC has no specific rule banning cable companies from exempting their own services from data caps, but it can review such arrangements on a case-by-case basis. Nevertheless, Comcast is held to its own, stricter terms as a result of its merger with NBC Universal in 2011. Among other restrictions, the company is prohibited from such practices, called zero-rating.
But Comcast may have found a way around that agreement. The company calls Stream TV "an IP cable service" that is "delivered over our managed network." Comcast is going through great lengths to make it say that Stream TV is not delivered over the internet — though, depending on your perspective, it is. Notably, customers don't need a cable box or other special hardware (like you do for the company's IP-based home phone service) to access the service. Comcast would argue that it's not the same thing, since it's not going over the same route as other data customers access over the internet. That explains why bandwidth used by Stream TV won't impact a subscriber's internet speeds.
Data caps have come to the fore recently as Comcast began enforcing a wider trial of a system that caps most users in select areas at 300GB per month. Subscribers can pay an extra $30 to $35 per month to unlock unlimited access, while those who go over the limit will pay $10 for each additional 50GB of usage. In an internal memo, the company admitted that the caps have nothing to do with improving network performance.
Disclosure: Comcast is a minority investor in Vox Media, The Verge's parent company.