My downstairs neighbor moved in a few months ago, and immediately signed up with Charter Communications for a cable package including its standard broadband service.
He needed this for his work: He’s the executive producer of a video game (cool, huh?), requiring him to upload large files.
Within weeks his broadband connection mysteriously started intermittently cutting out during his file-sharing activities, all of which are perfectly legal. His wife’s attempts to upload large batches of photos to share with family and friends met the same fate.
Though I can’t prove it, I believe he’s been designated as a large file uploader by Charter technology and consequently “rate-throttled.” That’s precisely what an Associated Press investigation last October found Comcast was doing: sending out fake TCP reset packets to either end of a file-sharing connection employing P2P applications such as BitTorrent, causing the target computer to reset its connection over and over again.
Only after the AP story did Comcast, the nation’s largest cable operator and ISP, with more than 12 million broadband customers, admit it did “delay, not block, some peer-to-peer traffic.” This throttling, and Comcast’s subsequent PR bungling, I labeled in a column last fall (TV Technology, Nov. 27, 2007) as “immoral, illegal and idiotic.”
COMCAST AND THE FCC
The practice landed Comcast in the hot seat at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in April, where FCC Chairman Kevin Martin testified Comcast’s throttling technology was “not … used only to occasionally delay traffic at particular nodes suffering from network congestion at that time.” Instead, Martin said, “This equipment was typically deployed over a wider geographic area or system, and is not even capable of knowing when an individual ... segment of the network is congested.”
Martin’s testimony, following on the heels of two FCC hearings on the subject, had senators demanding FCC enforcement.
The FCC in 2005 adopted some net neutrality principles, ensuring that consumers have the right to employ applications and access lawful content without facing throttling or other limitations from operators. It has enforced these rules on a couple of occasions involving minor operators. Comcast executives, however, have been publicly declaring the FCC has no authority over operators’ network management. Martin conceded to senators the FCC may face a lawsuit if it acts against Comcast, but insisted it can “adopt any rules we deem necessary to adequately protect consumers’ broadband rights.”
Some senators, mostly Democrats, have called for putting these principles into law, and authorize the FCC to enforce them. Several are backing a bill, the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, that would require operators to ensure optimum network performance for all, while users are free to access content, and content providers are free to offer their full range of content.
WHY CAN’T WE BE FRIENDS?
That’s exactly what Comcast now says it will do. Its executives in March joined long-term nemesis BitTorrent in announcing a “collaborative effort” to manage traffic more efficiently, on a “protocol agnostic” basis.
Comcast vows greater transparency in its newer, friendlier approach, which it hopes to have fully implemented by year’s end. The operator said it will work with BitTorrent and other applications providers to find ways to more efficiently manage heavy file sharing, focusing on periods of peak congestion and targeting heavy file-sharing users on the basis of the bandwidth, and not the applications, they are using.
That self-policing, say some Republicans on the FCC and in the Senate, is precisely why Congress should avoid stifling regulation.
The lingering question, though, is whether Comcast and its new pal BitTorrent can come up with network management technologies that don’t monitor content or applications, impose bandwidth caps, or result in punishing some content providers over others—a tall order. For example, how does an operator target heavy file sharers based on their bandwidth usage without moving to some form of metering? And if they were to charge based on metering, how can they justify a base fee of $50 or more if the customer only uses minimal bandwidth?
But as BitTorrent CEO Doug Walker pointed out in a recent CNET interview, it’s the skyrocketing use of video, enabled by the spread of broadband connections, that’s at the root of this problem.
Walker forecasts video traffic to PC and TV growing tenfold over the next three to four years, accelerated by increasing integration of video into social networking, entertainment and other sites.
On the horizon are moves by YouTube and other video sites to digital-quality video, which will only exacerbate traffic headaches.
While a certain amount of political posturing should always be expected during election season, the latest Senate hearings should not obscure deeper, unresolved issues.
First, while competing broadband delivery technologies have largely faltered, cable and DSL have established a duopoly resulting in limited competition. (If Comcast had faced more competition, would it have throttled, or moved more aggressively toward more efficient traffic management?)
Second, the FCC has demonstrated time and again that it will not act against any major operator no matter how severe the violation. It’s purely asinine when the head of the FCC sits in front of Congress and declares an operator to have violated FCC principles on a widespread basis, and then blandly concedes no enforcement action will be taken.
Fall elections will likely change the makeup of the FCC, but these larger issues need to be resolved. A plethora of companies are competing to deliver video to consumers and monetize that content stream. Only two are providing the pipes.
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