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Whose Fault Is Traffic Shaping, App Blocking?

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There is a big brouhaha today over Cox Communications blocking BitTorrent traffic, leading to outrage over what amounts to interference with the open Internet. The brouhaha is the result of a research study by Max Planck Institute, which found Cox, Comcast and (Singapore’s) StarHub to be anti-BitTorrent. There are some issues with this study, however — I, for one, (unlike DSL Reports) find it hard to swallow that there are no infringing phone companies.

Why is everyone surprised? I’m sure not. Cox admitted shaping traffic when we asked them about it back in October 2007, though they didn’t single out BitTorrent.

The publicity-hungry not-for-profits organizations do, however, bring up the issue of an open Internet, which is worthy of our attention — and anger — as consumers. But we need to focus our ire on the people who have helped create this mess — not ask them to get us out of it, as the Free Press proposes by suggesting that the FCC should intervene. FreePress Policy Director Ben Scott said:

“Consumers have no reason left to trust their cable company. This independent study confirms that Comcast is still blocking its customers from using popular applications — despite the FCC’s investigation and widespread public outrage…Congress and the FCC must urgently pursue the complaints against network providers.”

But this whole problem is the FCC’s making. The org, under Chairman Kevin Martin and others, has systematically dismantled broadband competition and paved the way for a duopoly (of cable and phone companies.) Martin’s predecessor claimed that broadband over power lines was a viable alternative to cable and DSL technologies that would bring in new competitors. Instead, this duopoly has thrived, and is the reason that the incumbents indulge in anti-consumer behavior. If there was thriving competition, and the cable and phone companies had to work for a living, BitTorrent blocking wouldn’t be an issue. Bandwidth would be plentiful, as it is in other developed and emerging telecom economies.

Unfortunately a lot of people seem to be falling for Martin’s nice guy act, failing to realize that it’s just a ploy for him to build some political capital before he tries to get elected to Congress to subvert the system even further. The blame lies squarely with Martin and others in the FCC: The politicians have failed their constituency and done nothing to foster real competition in the U.S. when it comes to broadband.

We’ve never really had true broadband competition, which is in my mind the real problem. What we need is a whole new approach to legislation and a brand-new FCC, one that is not encumbered by personal political ambitions and beholden to lobbyists. An FCC that puts the people first. It’s as simple as that.

17 Responses to “Whose Fault Is Traffic Shaping, App Blocking?”

  1. They said the same thing about phone lines. You realize that phone prices would be ten times greater if we have every company created their own phone poles, right? It is the same thing with broadband cables. It’s really easy to understand, as it’s even listed under the phrase “natural monopoly” in the dictionary. The FCC isn’t some idiot that just fumbles and messes things up. They know what they’re doing. They’re nothing more than the hired assassin of the cable companies. Sure, the most important person to billions of dollars of profits is making their decisions, ACCIDENTALLY, causing millions of consumers to be stuck in paying without choice. Yeah, sure. If you believe in your politicians, you’re far more gullible than I.

  2. I’m not surprised at all that ISPs are messing with bittorrent traffic and would actually be surprised if there were any ISPs that DON’T mess with bittorrent. I think it is terrible though, especially since it just seems like all of these ISPs want to do everything they can to stop people from using their networks so that they don’t have to spend money on infrastructure. I understand it costs a lot of money to actually give people what they are paying for but YOU got yourself into this mess by promising people speeds that you knew you couldn’t deliver on and then when we complain you say “we say up to 4mbps” COME ON.

  3. Good article.

    As to why the results show Cable interference but not DSL…

    As early as 2003, Prof. Tim Wu noted in his paper “Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination” (Journal of Telecommunications and High Technology Law 2: p.141 with article copies widely available on the net) that Cable and DSL were on two different tracks: Cable was heavily use-restricted (e.g. “no servers, no VPN, no fun, etc.”) while DSL was not.

    Five years later, this is still the case. Verizon is on the record that they do not discriminate, they do not throttle, (but they are keeping open their options to do so).

    But your larger conclusion is right on — with sufficient competition, ISPs can throttle anything they want and freedom is not impaired. Take dial-up, for example. There are hundreds of choices — many who proudly filter connections AS A FEATURE.

    The FCC applied the same thinking to broadband and “hoped” that competition would show up. Well, “hope” is no replacement for a strategy as it turns out.

  4. In response to Doug’s last paragraph: I think the problem is that most Americans don’t distinguish the unbridled internet whatever flavor of it we purchase and use in our homes. As a result, people will continue to pay for whatever reshaped, restructured, or tailored version of the web they have become accustomed to. This is something Americans really cannot afford to stand for.

    We’ve grown accustomed to the illusion that the internet is this free, open thing. For all intents and purposes it has been and is for many people. Becoming aware that the internet probably isn’t as pure as we’d like is a harsh reality to face, but that knowledge will change how we approach it as a tool. Hopefully we can get to a point where we needn’t worry about the integrity of our telecom providers. Europe seems to have figured something out judging by the lack of red on the map from the second link of the original post:

  5. Hard for me to read that post and not speak up. The fact is that there IS competition and fairly fierce competition at that. How many mail pieces do you get EVERY week from your local cable operator or telco? How often are they running special offers. All the time.

    Sure, there are really only two “real” options, but broadband over power line? C’mon. We here in Silicon Valley sometimes forget that we’re not average tech consumers. The vast majority of consumers expect to get their telecom services from telecom providers. That’s just how it is. BPL might be a nice idea, but let’s get real. It failed and will continue to do so for many very good reasons. Also, don’t forget that there are satellite data options out there too. Sure, it’s expensive and not a great service, but it’s still competition.

    Bottom line… cable and DSL are the best two alternatives until WiMAX/LTE or HSPA become real alternatives. The business model and subsequent demise of Metro WiFi is proof that some alternatives aren’t even viable. Cable and DSL (as much as folks might hate the power they have) have built a business model that works and they have every right to maintain that business model.

    The public will speak with their pocketbooks. When they stop spending or find a “real” alternative, the evil Telco/MSO duopoly will have to do something. Until then, it’s hard to blame the FCC or the providers for providing a service people are willing to pay for.

  6. Interesting idea – it would be harder to buy elected officials charged with narrow authorities. Could it make it past challenges on Constitutional grounds?

  7. Tough to see the pipe companies changing soon, or the FCC making them change.

    Your choice if you’re AT&T, Comcast or others: Spend a couple billion on an established IP-based media, com or combo alternative (If you can – Skype is probably available, YouTube is gone, Facebook’s too expensive), spend a couple hundred million to build your own and probably fail (think Hulu), or spend 10-30 million for a good chance to control Congress, probably with all your peers pulling in the same direction instead of wrestling with you (as they would in the first couple of options).