Blog Post

Comcast on the Defensive

Two weeks before the Federal Communication Commission meets to decide whether or not to issue an enforcement order against Comcast for throttling peer-to-peer traffic, not-for-profit group Free Press has accused the ISP of throttling P2P traffic not only when the network is congested, but whenever that traffic reaches a predefined level. Sort of like a golf club that allows a certain number of women in to keep the activists at bay, but no one beyond that number, even if the links are empty.

Free Press also said Comcast’s most recent network upgrades were a sham, with the cable company upgrading modems, but nothing in the core network. The interest group filed its statements with the FCC in response to filings Comcast made defending itself against the enforcement action. As Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice noted to me, the company has consistently admitted that it “manages traffic” (although it denies blocking it altogether). She also said that the ISP has a threshold beyond which it manages P2P traffic, but that 90 percent of the P2P traffic is unaffected by that management.

She added that on a particular node, 80 percent of managed traffic goes through in less than a minute. Of the portion that takes longer, she said, some of it may get dropped “for a reason unrelated to our management.” As for allegations related to the network upgrades, Fitzmaurice pointed out that the service is advertising network speeds rather than capacity. Free Press notes this later in its filing, but still thinks it’s a misleading practice. After all, what’s the point of having a fast car on a congested highway?

This sort of he-said, she-said back and forth between Comcast and the public interest group illustrate why it’s so important for the FCC to set up some clear rules regarding how an ISP manages its network. When things get this shady, it’s time to set some policies down in black and white.

4 Responses to “Comcast on the Defensive”

  1. Agree 100% about setting the rules down in black and white.

    Free Press is trying to get the FCC to treat a vague policy statement made by past Chairman Michael Powell — one which was explicitly presented to the public as unenforceable — as a set of hard and fast rules. It would be very foolish of the FCC to do that. The worst of the ideas in that statement says that users should be allowed to run the “applications of their choice” on the Internet, regardless of what they do!

    Think about that for a minute. An “application” (a computer program) encodes behavior — any behavior the author wants, in fact. And anyone at all can write one. So, insisting that anyone be able to run an application means that anyone can behave any way that he or she wants to — no matter how destructively — on the Internet. So, this requirement essentially means that no network provider can have an enforceable Acceptable Use Policy or Terms of Service. This is a recipe for disaster. Anyone who engages in destructive behavior, takes down the Net, etc. can say, “but I was just running an application… and I have the right to run any application I want!”

    Just imagine yourself as the operator of a school network, a public hotspot, an ISP, or what have you. A user is abusing the system. All the other users are complaining; quality of service has gone to hell in a handbasket. People are unable to work; lives may even hang in the balance if VoIP (voice over IP) telephone calls can’t get through. But if you act, and especially if you detect the rogue application and block it in particular, you’re subject to FCC fines and penalties.

    The FCC should respond to this matter by drafting proposed rules and allowing the public to comment, not by punishing Comcast for violating a “rule” that was not actually a rule.