Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) has quietly entered the CDN market with a commercial content delivery service primarily targeting medium and large size content owners. The service is live and the company has a few paying customers already delivering their content on Comcast’s CDN. This new offering allows content owners to go directly to the ISP and have their content stored and delivered via the last mile, thereby displacing some traffic currently delivered by third-party CDNs like Akamai (NASDAQ:AKAM) and Limelight Networks (NASDAQ:LLNW). While this is the same type of CDN service that other commercial CDNs like Akamai already offer, Comcast can offer a very good SLA and pricing, since they own the network. This is similar to what Level 3 did, when in 2010, they came to the market with a CDN service that was priced lower than others.
[Updated 4:06pm: Just in case it wasn't clear to some readers, Comcast's CDN service is not providing any kind of "fast lane" for content or any type of "prioritization" of content. A well operated third-party CDN will have similar performance to Comcast’s CDN and user experience will mostly be imperceivable by the average consumer. The service also has nothing to do with net-neutrality or interconnect agreements. Those who want to imply or suggest otherwise are doing so incorrectly.]
Because Comcast owns the last mile, and commercial CDNs don’t, content owners who go direct to Comcast will be able to get a cheaper price for CDN services. While contract variables like volume and length of contract will dictate price, I expect some content owners to be able to pay 20%-40% less than what they pay now. Since Comcast owns the network and has a lower cost, they can offer a lower price in the market. Right now, Comcast’s CDN service is primarily targeting large and mid-sized content owners for large file downloads and streaming of video, both live and on demand. While Comcast can also deliver content for smaller content owners, it does not make sense for the majority of small content owners to go direct to an ISP for content delivery. Comcast isn’t offering what the CDN industry calls value add services, so CDNs like Akamai that get a large percentage of their revenue from services like dynamic site acceleration won’t see that portion of their business affected.
Comcast’s new service is considered an on-net CDN offering as Comcast is primarily delivering content via their last mile. While they can also support off-net delivery outside of their network footprint, that’s not the business they are targeting. For content owners that have a large percentage of their content going to Comcast subscribers, it would make sense for some of them to take that portion of their traffic off a third party CDN and move it over to Comcast. While Comcast’s offering will be attractive to large content owners, this does not mean ever large content owner will use it. Many will find it as an attractive option in the market as a large portion of major content owners already use a multi-CDN approach to delivering their content. So if they can have Comcast pull content from their origin storage and deliver it locally for Comcast subscribers, and at a discounted price, many will the see the value considering that Comcast subs probably account for about 30% of their overall traffic.
As the news of Comcast’s commercial CDN offering gets out, I’m sure some are going to suggest that Comcast is doing this to counter the arguments that paid interconnect deals, like the one they have with Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX), is bad for the little guy. By Comcast now offering content owners the ability to deliver their content directly inside Comcast’s network, this now opens up the service for smaller content owners. The problem with that argument is that it is dead wrong. No small content owner builds their own CDN, so small content owners don’t need to go direct to any ISP for CDNs services or interconnect deals. Small content owners will always use third party commercial CDNs as it’s cheap and they can get good quality delivery from a single provider. That’s why the only companies doing interconnect deals are content owners like Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), Netflix, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) etc. because they have built their own CDNs. The reason Comcast is doing this is to open up another commercial option for any content owner who wants to deliver content.
Comcast’s new CDN offering has absolutely nothing to do with interconnect relationships and Comcast isn’t targeting small content owners or those who have already built their own CDN. Their ideal customer for the new service would be broadcasters, gaming companies, software companies, large publishers and those in the media and entertainment vertical. What Comcast is doing with their commercial CDN offering may sound like a new idea to many, but it’s not. In 2010, Verizon (NYSE:VZ) did a deal with HBO to deliver their content inside Verizon’s last mile for FiOS subscribers. This was due to the fact that Verizon had built out their own CDN, using the technology from Velocix, which was acquired by Alcatel Lucent (NYSE:ALU). Verizon didn’t do many deals with content owners and ended up changing their CDN plans a few years back, but I do expect Verizon to once again enter the market and offer a similar service to Comcast’s, due to Verizon’s recent purchase of EdgeCast.
Since the commercial CDN market for any ISP is small when compared to their core business, some will ask why Comcast or any ISP even wants to be in the commercial CDN business to being with. The key thing to remember about commercial CDNs is that many times they make cost trade offs around performance. Adding a disk drive to a cache to improve hit rate or a new server in a location does not have the same financial drivers as it does for any ISP. Typically a CDN pays the same $/Mbps to serve a city whether it is sourced locally or from across the country. An ISP’s network costs to serve from long distance drives financial incentives to both add local storage and server capacity to keep traffic local. Some CDNs deliver a large portion of their traffic from sub-optimal locations to save on server and storage costs.
Right now, Comcast is the only ISP in the U.S. to offer a commercial CDN service directly to content owners via their own in-house solution, as opposed to licesing a platform from a third party. While some might suggest that ISPs offering commercial CDN services will be a trend moving forward, it isn’t. The only three ISPs this kind of service would even make sense for would be Comcast, Verizon and AT&T (NYSE:T), and AT&T has already given up on their own internal CDN and simply resells Akamai.