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Why Netflix Is Actually the Big Winner in the Comcast Bandwidth Deal

Despite the spin you may have read, Netflix is not getting screwed by Comcast, the biggest broadband provider in the U.S.

In fact, through the interconnection deal with Comcast, Netflix will cost-effectively reinforce its position as the leading video streaming provider for a relatively modest chunk of change — taking advantage of Comcast’s evident eagerness to look like it’s on its best behavior as Brian Roberts & Co. prepare to swallow Time Warner Cable.

Netflix investors cheered: The stock hit an all-time intraday high of $449.69 per share in midday trading Monday. (UPDATE: Shares closed Monday at a record $447.00 per share, up 3.4% from the prior closing price.)

On Sunday, Comcast and Netflix announced an interconnection deal that will provide a direct connection from Netflix’s content-delivery network infrastructure to the cable operator’s broadband network. Yes, Netflix is paying for the guaranteed bandwidth, but the company already has been paying CDN providers like Cogent Networks and Level 3 Communications to provide similar distribution.

SEE ALSO: Netflix and Comcast Reach Internet Connection Agreement

Netflix is likely paying Comcast between $25 million and $50 million per year, according to an estimate by Wedbush Securities — less than the $1 monthly per Netflix subscriber Comcast likely was seeking. (Comcast had 20.7 million broadband subs at the end of 2013; assuming 40% of those have Netflix accounts, $1 per subscriber per month would amount to $99 million yearly.)

That said, Wedbush — which rates Netflix “underperform” — predicts the video-streamer’s future payments to Internet service providers overall will balloon to become “quite large” within the next several years.

“We think that the agreement reinforces the leverage that broadband providers have over Netflix, leaving the latter no recourse other than to open its checkbook,” Wedbush analysts Michael Pachter, Nick Citrin and Nick McKay wrote in the note.

In the long run, Netflix expects the Comcast deal to save it money compared with distributing video through third-party CDNs, according to a source familiar with the agreement.

While the Netflix-Comcast pact was in the works for the past several months, Comcast had a clear incentive to reach a quick resolution to any possible regulatory pushback on its $45 billion bid for TW Cable, announced earlier this month.

The cable operator wanted “to avoid an ugly confrontation,” MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett said in a note to clients. “Throwing its weight around and bullying Netflix, a company that many (regulators included) mistakenly view as Comcast’s direct competitor, would open Comcast to charges of anticompetitive behavior… Netflix, it would seem, was at a moment of unprecedented leverage. And Reed Hastings is a smart guy.”

The Comcast agreement raises the likelihood of Netflix cutting similar interconnection deals with other ISPs, “but we do not believe (other providers) would have the same degree of leverage with Netflix,” J.P. Morgan Securities analyst Doug Anmuth wrote in a note.

Separately, Verizon Communications chairman and CEO Lowell McAdam said on a conference call with investors Monday that the telco has held discussions with Netflix about an interconnection agreement and hopes to reach a deal soon.

Netflix, relative to other subscription VOD competitors, now has guaranteed costs for several years with the Comcast. Netflix rivals “may now have to cope with additional fees that sway their willingness to compete if they do not already have a large sub base,” Janney Capital Markets analyst Tony Wible wrote.

Usage-based broadband pricing by ISPs, in which consumers pay more if they use more bandwidth, remains a wildcard that could damper demand for Netflix and other SVOD services, Wible noted. However, he wrote, “we do not believe (usage-based billing) is in the best interests of the MSOs as they are still keen to increase demand for broadband service.”

Several analysts also pointed out that the Comcast-Netflix arrangement is entirely unrelated to the fact that the FCC’s network neutrality rules were recently struck down by a federal appeals court. Network neutrality refers to non-discriminatory treatment of traffic within a given provider’s network. The interconnection deal reached between Comcast and Netflix, which is common in the industry, is designed to ensure a content provider’s services don’t become congested at the ingress point of an ISP’s network.

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