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Summary:

Comcast is moving away from the much criticized practice of blocking P2P traffic, and instead is looking at alternatives to rein in a small group of Comcast customers that can be labeled bandwidth hogs. Comcast Cable’s CTO explains.

Comcast recently announced a deal with BitTorrent that left me dazed and confused. It was basically a roundabout way for the cable company to backtrack from its P2P traffic-blocking gaffe. In describing the deal, Comcast tried to shift the focus away from their so-called “network management” — and by extension, the limitations of their network that prompted them to resort to traffic manipulation in the first place.

On Friday, I caught up with Tony Werner, chief technology officer of Comcast Cable, to get the real skinny. When asked to explain the so-called announcement in language a simpleton like me could understand, Werner said: “Historically we had looked at a basket of P2P protocols during peak load times and would slow them down. In the new approach, we don’t do this any more.” In short, no P2P blocking!

Werner said that between one half and two percent of Comcast’s customers can be described as “bandwidth hogs” — users that consume so much bandwidth that it can cause network quality degradation. According to Werner, the company is currently experimenting with software (including that from Sandvine) that would allow them to fractionally de-prioritize the traffic from these bandwidth hogs during peak load times, while at other times, leaving them alone.

Comcast will not discriminate against any protocol, but bandwidth baddies are going to be the ones to suffer. Or at least that’s what I took away from our conversation.

Problem is who’s to say they’re not going to manage everyone’s traffic? Although a company spokesperson assured us Comcast will be clear and transparent with anything related to traffic management, my skepticism stems for Comcast’s past actions. When it comes to traffic management, the Philadelphia-based operator has a checkered past.

Comcast assured the FCC during the Network Neutrality deliberations in 2005 that it would not degrade traffic; it repeated the assurance again in 2006. Yet the company started “traffic managing” that very same year. And now they’re cleaning up their act?

I asked Werner, why manage traffic to begin with? Why not just add more capacity? “You can’t quadruple the size of the streets and take away all the traffic rules,” Werner said.

He said Comcast is not alone in traffic management, that even in places like Japan, fiber operators that sell 100-megabits-per-second connections are managing traffic, too. “A vast majority of ISPs do perform traffic management, including NTT, and the reason we do it is because we want to have balanced traffic performance at peak times,” Werner said. (See here for “Why Shaping Traffic Isn’t Just A Comcast Issue.“)

Of course, my views on broadband align with those of French broadband maverick Xavier Niel, who believes giving people more bandwidth — not getting in their way. Still, his view (and mine) are the minority in a broadband world dominated by large incumbents.

For their part, the incumbents have started to talk about taking a protocol-agnostic approach to traffic management. They have to, otherwise we’ll have more snafus like the ones experienced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Although the CBC released a torrent legitimately, downloaders had a hard time grabbing the video shows. Werner’s comments and recent throat-clearing by Verizon and AT&T reveals a thaw in ISP views on P2P.

On a larger scale, Werner said traffic management is “very tricky.” “We need to get the whole industry together and tackle this issue,” he said.

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  1. what is a “bandwidth baddie?” someone who actually uses what they were offered and paid for? ahem!

  2. I believe Comcast is doing the right thing. Traffic mgt is necessary. You can’t just keep solving the problem by adding capacity. You have to do both. Make the baddies pay more or slow them down.

  3. To poorly paraphrase Star Wars episode three…”This is how Net Neutrality dies, with thunderous applause…”

  4. P.S. Comcast you and all the other ISPs are just “dumb pipes” the sooner you accept that reality, a better place the world will be.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dumb_pipe

  5. Rick has a point – obviously, there will always be some bottleneck somewhere which must be managed in some way, even if it’s as simple as letting the router at that point drop packets from the relevant buffer, the default “traffic management” policy which has prevailed across the Internet for as long as it has existed.

    If Comcast applies a cap fairly – so that if 20 people all try to pull data across the same 155Mbps (OC-3) link somewhere, they each get a fair share of 7 Mbps or so – it’s reasonable – my objection comes when they start killing off one protocol (like BitTorrent) to leave more room for others like HTTP, and that seems to be precisely what Comcast were doing previously. I don’t mind not being able to max out the 8Mbps capacity of my ADSL line when the network’s busy (although obviously I expect my ISP to invest in maintaining performance as traffic grows) – but when they start artificially restricting the connection’s performance based on how they think I’m using it, I object.

  6. So if they are being transparent about what they are doing, any chance they can clue us in where the high traffic times? It seems like if they published these times, some of the bandwidth hogs would reduce their consumption at peak times and increase during non-peak times, so as to work with Comcast versus getting comcasted by whatever software (i.e. expensive, customer off putting, etc etc.) they come up with.

  7. Lexi Cographer Monday, March 31, 2008

    change to “rein in”

  8. Re ‘just add more capacity’

    In one of the press releases or articles they did in fact say they were adding network capacity, which is good. But I encourage anyone to read what the Japanese ISPs are experiencing, and to read the recent ZDNet article on this topic (George Ou wrote it I think). Basically it appears that other countries are seeing their pipes fill to capacity as soon as they are built, and the ZDNet article points out some short-comings in TCP itself on this matter.

    Re ‘Problem is who’s to say they’re not going to manage everyone’s traffic? Although a company spokesperson assured us Comcast will be clear and transparent with anything related to traffic management, my skepticism stems for Comcast’s past actions. When it comes to traffic management, the Philadelphia-based operator has a checkered past.’

    Makes sense to expect greater transparency. Didn’t the press release say they were sharing this practices with BitTorrent and in some way taking this to the IETF? Transparency is good.

  9. Re: ‘P.S. Comcast you and all the other ISPs are just “dumb pipes” the sooner you accept that reality, a better place the world will be.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dumb_pipe

    Just read that wiki and it appears suited to mobile operators with a walled garden, so perhaps that is more applicable to the vintage AOL walled garden experience?

    And the further scenario cited is that of the iPhone, where any device can be connected to the network, which is of course how any broadband service already works today.

    But if network operators are to believed, just providing basic bandwidth and speed necessitates some form of ‘smart’ network management. So even if someone runs a dumb network they still need smart people to operate and optimize it, and good software/hardware/infrastructure.

  10. @JL Plenty of smart people own and operate my chosen provider of electricity ( TXU here in Texas ) but they have no desire to “control” or “dictate” what I do with the juice – Can you imagine?!?!?! The more electricity I use, the bigger the monthly bill, that’s it.

    There is no mention of who can ( or cannot )use the electricity for Power company “approved” uses.

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