Comcast and BitTorrent Working It Out

After months of battling over the extent to which Comcast was blocking user access to the peer-to-peer file-sharing serviceBitTorrent, the two companies said Thursday they would work together to craft solutions to ensure full access.

Comcast plans to work directly with BitTorrent and others in the Web services and Internet service provider community to craft strategies for dealing with bandwidth-hogging services such as video downloads.

For months, Comcast and BitTorrent have been taking their dispute to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), with the P2P site first complaining to the agency that its traffic was being curtailed by Comcast.

Comcast acknowledged that it used tools to manage network traffic to BitTorrent, but told the FCC that the process was necessary to ensure that all users would have access to the Internet.

The cooperative approach is already bearing fruit; Comcast announced it will switch to a traffic management technique that is “protocol agnostic” — meaning it will not single out P2P file-sharing sites — by the end of the year.

“This means that we will have to rapidly reconfigure our network management systems, but the outcome will be a traffic management technique that is more appropriate for today’s emerging Internet trends,” said Comcast Chief Technology Officer Tony Werner. “We have been discussing this migration and its effects with leaders in the Internet community for the last several months, and we will refine, adjust and publish the technique based upon feedback and initial trial results.”

Acknowledging the Need

For its part, BitTorrent said it recognized the need for Comcast and other high-speed Internet service providers to manage the traffic on their networks.

“While we think there were other management techniques that could have been deployed, we understand why Comcast and other ISPs adopted the approach that they did initially,” said Eric Klinker, chief technology officer at BitTorrent. “We are pleased that Comcast understands these changing traffic patterns and wants to collaborate with us to migrate to techniques that the Internet community will find to be more transparent.”

Planned upgrades to its cable network will also help address the capacity crunch caused by the downloading of movies, games and other bandwidth-hogging content, Comcast said. By the end of the this year, 20 percent of the carrier’s households will have a new wideband Internet protocol known as “DOCSIS 3.0.” Comcast is also investing in other parts of its network to increase capacity.

BitTorrent’s complaints to the FCC sparked a lengthy hearing into network traffic management techniques, but did not immediately trigger any formal action by the agency.

Public outcry — dozens of people were turned away from the hearing and at least one customer filed a civil lawsuit over the issue — and the possibility that the FCC would take some aggressive measures likely spurred the cooperative approach, said Ben Scott, policy director at FreePress, a coalition pushing for a more open Internet.

Action may still be needed, however — either by the FCC or Congress — to ensure true network neutrality, Scott told the E-Commerce Times. Other P2P companies may not have access to the same guarantees that BitTorrent has won from Comcast — and it’s widely believed that other ISPs use similar techniques to manage traffic.

“There is still a need for a formal position on what is and isn’t acceptable as far as managing traffic is concerned,” Scott said.

Reaching Out

BitTorrent and Comcast also intend to work with other technology companies and the Internet Engineering Task Force. BitTorrent will examine the way its applications are designed and set up to ensure they use up only the capacity they need, and it will publicize the protocols it develops.

In addition to forestalling the FCC and possibly helping to keep network neutrality legislation from gaining momentum, the partnership approach may reflect the realization that Comcast and BitTorrent aren’t likely to become direct competitors, Forrester Research Analyst James McQuivey told the E-Commerce Times.

While BitTorrent is eager to become a valid platform for distributing video as the Internet becomes a more popular venue for full-length content, the cable companies have a distinct advantage.

“Most consumers are going to favor a more traditional delivery method for their Internet video,” McQuivey said. “BitTorrent is still a bit cutting-edge for the average video customer.”

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