FCC Net Neutrality Hearing Turns Up Heat on Comcast

The Federal Communications Commission is prepared to step in and prevent Internet service providers from arbitrarily regulating Web traffic to control demand on their networks if it deems such moves are necessary.

At the start of a day-long hearing on the topic of network traffic management — a hearing spurred by controversy over Comcast’s use of technology to manage traffic amid heavy demand for bandwidth from users of BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer networks — FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said broadband providers must manage traffic in a way that does not mislead subscribers.

Network operators “obviously cannot operate without taking some reasonable steps, but that does not mean they can arbitrarily block access to certain services,” Martin commented at the beginning of the hearing, which was held inside a practice courtroom at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass.

“The time has come for a specific enforceable principle of nondiscrimination at the FCC,” agreed Michael Copps, a member of the commission. “Our job is to figure out where you draw the line between unreasonable discrimination and reasonable network management.”

The day-long hearing, which the FCC first announced in February, brought a host of technology and policy experts together to testify before the commission. A demonstration of network traffic management tools was also planned.

Various Opinions Heard

Among those slated to testify during the day-long session — which was being webcast by the FCC — were state lawmakers, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors, the chief technology officer from BitTorrent, legal scholars and a Comcast representative. Comcast just last week filed a lengthy brief with the FCC defending its tactics as necessary steps to ensure its customers have unfettered access to the Web.

FCC seemed to indicate the issue may come down to whether Comcast is found to have targeted BitTorrent users or similar sites, or whether it simply controlled the flow of traffic in order to prevent noticeable slowdowns for customers.

The entire issue is unfolding against the backdrop of the network neutrality debate. Groups such as Free Press, which is advocating in favor of a federal law requiring that networks be kept open, describe the Comcast moves as the first step down a slippery slope toward a world where ISPs decide which services and sites users are given the best and fastest access to.

“Once the cable and telecom companies recognize they have the leeway to manage traffic, they’re likely to become increasingly interested in doing so,” Free Press Policy Director Ben Scott told the E-Commerce Times.

Financial considerations complicate the debate over technology, he added, because some of the services most likely to be blocked, or “managed,” to use Comcast’s term, are video download sites, some of which already or may in the future compete with video-on-demand services the cable and phone companies operate themselves.

“The sites most likely to drain bandwidth are also the ones that will be competing with what Comcast does,” Scott commented.

Going Head-to-Head

Among those speaking Monday was Gilles BianRosa, the CEO of Web-based entertainment platform Vuze. BianRosa planned to argue that if the FCC intends to make rules regarding network openness, it should do so now to avoid creating a drag on Internet innovation.

“Now is the time to establish rules and regulations that will enable the evolution of the Internet,” BianRosa said. “We complete with Comcast with delivery of content over the Internet. What we have here is a horse race, and in this contest Comcast owns the race track — in fact, the only track in town. They also own a horse. We are being told they are only slowing down our horse by a few seconds.”

Vuze has joined BitTorrent and others in complaining to the FCC about Comcast’s practices and asking for the agency to intervene, which it appears poised to do.

In fact, FCC members harshly grilled the Comcast representative who spoke Monday. Comcast does not feel it is “restraining customers from using the service in accordance with the way we’re selling it to them,” said David Cohen, executive vice president for the company.

The company’s broadband services contract includes a caveat that some P2P traffic may be managed in such a way, he noted.

“Comcast does not block any Web site, application or Web protocol, including peer-to-peer services, period,” Cohen said. “What we are doing is a limited form of network management objectively based upon an excessive bandwidth-consumptive protocol during limited periods of network congestion.”

In the long run, it’s not clear that P2P networks that break up videos to store them in various places and then enable users to download and reassemble them offer a strong alternative to the on-demand video users get from their cable providers, Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey told the E-Commerce Times. In that sense, BitTorrent may not ever be a true competitor, he noted.

“This is neat technology for people comfortable with the Internet to explore, but it’s not necessarily the kind of thing the average video consumer is comfortable with,” McQuivey said.

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