FCC’s Martin says Comcast’s Internet practices need government oversight

FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin has challenged several of Comcast’s claims about how it operates its Internet network before Congress, indicating the cable operator’s blocking practices may be more widespread than previously known. However, he continues to oppose new net neutrality legislation.

Martin, testifying last week before the Senate Commerce Committee, agreed with critics of Comcast that the operator had delayed peer-to-peer users of its Internet service even when the network was not congested. They “block uploads of a significant portion of subscribers” in the network, even during times when the network isn’t congested, Martin said.

“It does not appear that this technique was used only to occasionally delay traffic at particular nodes suffering from network congestion at that time,” Martin told the senators. “Based on testimony we’ve received thus far, 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 said he doubted Comcast’s promises that its controversial practices would stop by the end of the year. “I believe that we should evaluate the practices with heightened scrutiny,“ Martin told the senators.

The FCC chairman, however, urged Congress not to pass new net neutrality laws, arguing that the FCC already has sufficient authority to enforce its broad principles on broadband Internet management. In 2005, the FCC adopted a set of open Internet policy principles, and it has responded to traffic-blocking complaints, the chairman said.

Martin said he is against a bill introduced by Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-MA, to enforce open-network rules. At the same time, he has not objected to clarifications that would enable the FCC to enforce its existing guidelines.

Martin’s comments indicated the FCC is moving toward some type action against Comcast, who was thrust into the debate over net neutrality after the public interest group Free Press and Vuze filed complaints that the cable company slowed the transfer of video and other Internet content by users of the file-sharing application BitTorrent.

Comcast and other cable operators argue that the FCC doesn’t have the power to enforce how they maintain and operate their networks. They argue the cable industry can police itself. The cable operator described its network management as a “reasonable choice,” but it also announced in March that it would work with BitTorrent and other companies to move to protocol-agnostic network management by the end of the year.