US: F.C.C. Weighing Limits on Slowing Web Traffic

Publisher Name: 
The New York Times

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - The head of the Federal Communications Commission
and other senior officials said on Monday that they were considering
taking steps to discourage cable and telephone companies from delaying
the downloads and uploads of heavy Internet users.

The agency is considering
rules and enforcement decisions to force the cable and telephone
companies to disclose their policies more clearly for delaying traffic
that they say is clogging their systems.

Comcast,
the nation's largest cable company, has been the subject of a complaint
after it acknowledged that it slowed down some Internet traffic of
BitTorrent, a file-sharing service, because of heavy use of
video-sharing applications.

Consumer groups have said that such
discrimination against some content providers has been aimed at
Comcast's rivals and is both unnecessary and threatens to undermine the
freewheeling nature of the Internet. In his comments, Kevin J. Martin,
the agency's chairman, tended to agree.

"They must be conducted
in an open and transparent way," Mr. Martin said at a hearing Monday on
network neutrality and network management. "While networks may have
reasonable practices, they obviously cannot operate without taking some
reasonable steps, but that does not mean they can arbitrarily block
access to certain services."

In sharp questioning to a senior
executive from Comcast, Mr. Martin indicated that the commission was
considering whether to levy a fine or issue an order that would limit
the company's ability to slow down broadband traffic to consumers using
file-sharing programs.

Michael J. Copps, a Democratic
commissioner, said that until recently, the cable company's policies
had been decided "in a black box that the American public could not
peek into." He expressed alarm that any cable companies might be
degrading or slowing network traffic.

"The time has come for a
specific enforceable principle of nondiscrimination. This principle
should allow for reasonable network management, but make crystal clear
that broadband network operators cannot shackle the promise of the
Internet," Mr. Copps said. "Our job is to figure out where you draw the
line between unreasonable discrimination and reasonable network
management."

The hearing follows calls for the commission to
resolve several disputes between broadband providers and file-sharing
companies over consumers using peer-to-peer protocol, a system for
faster downloads known as P2P, to upload larger video files. But
consumer groups say that efforts to manage the traffic may result in
the cable companies favoring one content provider or file-sharing
company over another.

The commission has been considering
complaints made by the downloading services Vuze and BitTorrent and
several consumer groups that Comcast has violated a policy statement
issued by the commission in 2005 that permits Internet service
providers to engage in "reasonable network management." The term has
become a focal point in the revived debate over what is called network
neutrality.

The daylong hearing was held at Harvard Law School, near the Congressional district of Representative Edward J. Markey,
a Democrat who as the head of a House telecommunications subcommittee
recently introduced legislation intended to prevent cable and telephone
companies from discriminating in the way they control broadband
traffic. (The school is also Mr. Martin's alma mater.)

Mr. Markey expressed concerns about Comcast's practice, warning of "the transformation of BitTorrent into bit trickle."

The
legislation faces significant political obstacles and is unlikely to be
adopted this year. But the debate over it has set off a fierce lobbying
war.

At the hearing, Gilles BianRosa, chief executive of Vuze,
attacked Comcast's decision to slow Internet traffic. The company is a
leading provider of high-resolution video to computer users, and has
had more than 20 million downloads of its application.

He says the problem is that "the network operator is our competitor."

"We
compete with Comcast with delivery of content over the Internet," Mr.
BianRosa said. "What we have here is a horse race, and in this contest
Comcast owns the racetrack, 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."

"We agree that network operators should be
able to employ reasonable measures to manage their networks," he said.
"We are against network management with no boundaries. It threatens the
openness and freedom of the Internet."

Eric Klinker, chief
technology officer at BitTorrent, also sharply criticized Comcast.
"These are techniques similar to what hackers are doing on the Web," he
said.

But David L. Cohen, an executive vice president of Comcast,
told the commissioners that the growing popularity of peer-to-peer
applications was straining the network. "Independent research has shown
that it takes as few as 15 active BitTorrent users uploading content in
a particular geographic area to create congestion sufficient to degrade
the experience of the hundreds of other users in that area," he said.
"Bandwidth-intensive activities not only degrade other less-intense
uses, but also significantly interfere with thousands of Internet
companies' businesses."

"Far from managing our network in a
discriminatory way to benefit our own offerings - other than managing
our network to make our high-speed Internet service faster and better -
our limited network management practices ensure that everyone else's
applications and services, even those that may compete with our
services and use P2P protocols, work," Mr. Cohen said.

Mr. Martin
called it "a little odd" that people are paying for higher speeds and
then seeing the service degraded when the company takes steps to slow
that speed. Pressing Mr. Cohen to explain how Comcast can sell a
service to consumers and then degrade that service, Mr. Martin asked,
"Doesn't it undermine your arguments and isn't it inconsistent?"

"No,"
Mr. Cohen replied. "I don't think we are restraining customers from
using the service in accordance with the way they have purchased them.
We sell a service and say it will be sold as up to a certain speed. But
it is sold as part of a shared network, and its use will not be used to
degrade use for other users."

AMP Section Name:Technology & Telecommunications
  • 208 Regulation