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Apple in talks with Comcast over enhanced 'last mile' streaming video pipeline

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Welcome to the post-net neutrality age. The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday (via Ars Technica) that Apple and Comcast are working on a deal that would ensure an Apple set-top box would get special treatment on Comcast's broadband service.

To be clear, the discussions, sources familiar with the situation say, are in the very early stages. If completed though, the deal would give Apple a leg up on other content providers that use broadband as a delivery methodology. The service would involve both live streaming and on-demand TV programming.

Despite Verizon's recent court victory, which many see as a major blow to net neutrality, Comcast will have to tread lightly here. As part of its acquisition of NBC Universal back in 2011, Comcast has to follow the vacated rules until 2018.

The recently exposed payment from Netflix to Verizon fits under that umbrella, as it was allowed since Comcast's net neutrality obligations cover only the "last mile," which means the distance from a Comcast facility to a consumer home. In Apple's case, the Cupertino, Calif.-based giant wants its traffic separated from public Internet traffic over that "last mile." That portion of the "pipe" is where congestion frequently happens, as consumers pile on to access public Internet bandwidth.

If this could be arranged, Apple's set-top device, presumably an Apple TV box, could have the same performance and quality as Comcast's video streams, ensuring that Apple TV users don't see glitches or buffering while streaming video.

According to the WSJ, to accomplish this, the plan that Apple proposed to Comcast would brand Apple's video streams as a "managed service." This would accomplish what Apple wants. While the company would like a separate "flow" for its video traffic, it is not, sources said, asking for its traffic to be prioritized over other Internet-based services.

Apple had previously been rumored to be talking to Time-Warner Cable. However, now that Comcast has announced its intention to acquire Time-Warner Cable, combining the nation's no. 1 and no. 2 cable providers -- respectively -- it makes 100 percent sense that Apple is now speaking to Comcast about the same idea.

To be clear, though, the sources said any such deal is in the very early stages of negotiation.

At the same time, the FCC, in response to the loss it was dealt by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (in January), is drafting a new set of net neutrality regulations. Net neutrality has been an overarching Internet "protocol" since the 'Net was birthed; it means that all traffic will be treated the same. It is unclear how the the FCC will address a situation in which a content provider -- such as Apple -- desires enhanced treatment brought about by a partnership with a cable operator.

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