FCC moves toward prohibiting Comcast traffic management

At issue: throttling back P2P traffic by the ISP

Amid news reports that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission is moving to prohibit Comcast from throttling BitTorrent traffic on its broadband network, a Comcast official said the agency has provided no guidance on how to deal with network congestion.

The Associated Press reported Friday that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin will recommend that Comcast be reprimanded for slowing peer-to-peer (P2P) BitTorrent traffic. Comcast says it throttles the traffic only during times of peak congestion, but Martin and a study from the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems in Germany have contended that Comcast blocks BitTorrent traffic during off-peak hours as well.

Martin told the AP that Comcast's actions have violated FCC principles intended to protect Internet users by arbitrarily blocking some traffic and not telling its customers. The so-called Net neutrality principles say Internet service providers shouldn't block or impair legal applications unless the blocking is part of "reasonable network management."

Comcast does not block any Internet traffic and slows only a small percentage of P2P uploads, said Sena Fitzmaurice, Comcast's senior director of corporate communications and government affairs. In most cases, the upload begins within a minute, she added.

"The commission has never before provided any guidance on what it means by 'reasonable network management,'" Fitzmaurice said. "The carefully limited measures that Comcast takes to manage traffic on its broadband network are a reasonable part of Comcast's strategy to ensure a high-quality, reliable Internet experience for all Comcast High-Speed Internet customers and are used by many other ISPs around the world."

Comcast's customer service agreements tell users that broadband capacity is "not unlimited," she added.

Free Press, an advocacy group focused on digital rights, applauded Martin's decision. Free Press was among the consumer groups that filed a petition with the FCC in November asking the agency to stop the Comcast traffic throttling, shortly after an AP investigation revealed the Comcast network management practices.

"Nine months ago, Comcast was exposed for blocking free choice on the Internet," Marvin Ammori, general counsel of Free Press, said in a statement. "At every turn, Comcast has denied blocking, lied to the public and tried to avoid being held accountable. We have presented an open and shut case that Comcast broke the law."

If the FCC takes action, it will be an "historic test for whether the law will protect the open Internet," he added.

The full FCC could vote on Martin's recommendations on Comcast traffic throttling by early August.

Comcast has questioned whether the FCC has the authority to prohibit its network management practices. But it also announced in March that it would work with the company BitTorrent to better address how to deal with network management challenges. The agreement with the BitTorrent company wouldn't necessarily stop Comcast from slowing other traffic using the BitTorrent protocol.

This week, Comcast also announced an agreement with Vonage, the provider of a voice-over-IP service that competes with a similar Comcast offering. Comcast said it will work with Vonage on network management techniques that "effectively balance the need to avoid network congestion with the need to ensure that over-the-top VoIP services like Vonage work well for consumers."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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