Comcast Cable CTO: Bandwidth Hogs Will Experience Slowdowns

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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