US: Comcast Defends Role As Internet Traffic Cop

Publisher Name: 
The Washington Post

Comcast
said yesterday that it purposely slows down some traffic on its
network, including some music and movie downloads, an admission that
sparked more controversy in the debate over how much control network
operators should have over the Internet.

In a filing with the Federal Communications Commission,
Comcast said such measures -- which can slow the transfer of music or
video between subscribers sharing files, for example -- are necessary
to ensure better flow of traffic over its network.

In defending
its actions, Comcast stepped into one of the technology industry's most
divisive battles. Comcast argues that it should be able to direct
traffic so networks don't get clogged; consumer groups and some
Internet companies argue that the networks should not be permitted to
block or slow users' access to the Web.

Comcast's FCC filing
yesterday was in response to petitions to the agency by the consumer
group Free Press and the online video provider Vuze, which claimed that
the cable company was abusing its control over its network to impede
video competition.

Separately, the FCC began an investigation of
Comcast's network practices after receiving those complaints. That
review is ongoing, according to Comcast, which said it hasn't received
any specific orders based on the complaints.

The FCC prohibits
network operators from blocking applications but opens the door to
interpretation with a footnote in a policy statement that provides for
an exemption for "reasonable management."

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's
subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, plans to introduce
a bill today calling for an Internet policy that would prohibit network
operators from unreasonably interfering with consumers' right to access
and use content over broadband networks. The bill also calls for the
FCC to hold eight meetings around the nation to assess whether there is
enough competition among network providers and whether consumers'
rights are being upheld.

"Our goal is to ensure that the next
generation of Internet innovators will have the same opportunity, the
same unfettered access to Internet content, services and applications
that fostered the developers of Yahoo, Netscape and Google," Markey said in a written statement yesterday.

The
case with Comcast illustrates the high-stakes battle between those who
argue that the Internet should remain open to all traffic, and the
companies who argue that some governance of their networks is in the
best interest of their customers.

In its comments, Comcast said
network controls are necessary, especially for heavy Web users.
Specifically, the company imposes "temporary delays" of video, music
and other files shared between computers using such technologies as BitTorrent.

Comcast
compared its practices to a traffic-ramp control light that regulates
the entry of additional vehicles onto a freeway during rush hour. "One
would not claim that the car is 'blocked' or 'prevented from entering
the freeway; rather it is briefly delayed," the company's statement
said.

Marvin Ammori, the general counsel for Free Press, said
Comcast's behavior is the second major example of an service provider
overstepping its authority in an attempt to quash competition. In March
2005, the FCC fined Madison River Communications for blocking calls by
competitor Vonage, which provided free calls over the Internet.

Ammori said that by interfering with video transfers, Comcast is trying to protect its television and On Demand video services.

BitTorrent
said Comcast should respond by increasing bandwidth on its networks and
upgrading its systems rather than limiting how customers use its
service.

"It's like putting a Band-Aid on the problem to achieve a short-term fix," said Ashwin Navin, co-founder and president of San Francisco-based BitTorrent.

AMP Section Name:Technology & Telecommunications
  • 180 Media & Entertainment
  • 208 Regulation